Some young disabled athletes are having their own Oscar Pistorius moments — not by breaking barriers in the Olympics, but by battling sports officials over whether and how they should be accommodated in competitions with able-bodied athletes.During his ascent as a world-class runner, Pistorius, a double amputee from South Africa, raised thorny questions about the distinction between disabled and able-bodied athletes. He was allowed to compete in last summer’s London Games after prevailing in a legal dispute that reached the sports world’s highest court.
High schools and youth sports organizations throughout the country are grappling with similarly unusual challenges in finding ways to accommodate students with disabilities.Should a starting light be used rather than a starting gun for a deaf athlete? Should a swimmer with one arm be allowed to touch the wall with his head instead of his hand? Should a track athlete in a wheelchair be allowed to use arm strength rather than leg muscles to propel toward the finish line?Federal laws have long provided guidance on what students with disabilities are legally entitled to during the school day. But what constitutes reasonable accommodation or equal opportunity under the law has become widely debated when it comes to after-school sports.The number of cases involving disabled students in sports is not officially tracked by groups representing the disabled, but lawyers and officials say they are encountering more questions regarding inclusion. The increase in interest has prompted the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to prepare additional guidance.“The courts have made it a gray area when it comes to the question of what exactly is reasonable accommodation in sports,” said Perry A. Zirkel, an education law professor at Lehigh University.A tennis player from Mesa, Ariz., found herself in that gray area when she was a sophomore. The player, Kiara Chapple, began taking tennis lessons when she was in middle school with the goal of making her high school team and qualifying for tournament play. Deaf since birth, she relied on an interpreter who stood on the sideline to sign the score and aid communication with opponents and her doubles partner.Chapple said she was surprised when, at a doubles tournament in her sophomore year in 2009, her interpreter was removed after complaints from a coach for the opposing team. Chapple and her teammate, who had been leading, went on to lose.Chapple, with the aid of the United States Justice Department, filed a legal complaint against the Arizona Interscholastic Association.“I thought it was unfair,” Chapple said. “They were discriminating, and I have rights to an interpreter. I felt sad. We lost the match, and I couldn’t communicate with anyone.”Many laws pertaining to Americans with disabilities are federal mandates, but the financial consequences may fall on local school districts, many of which are facing budget strains. Coaches can also feel poorly equipped to adapt sports for disabled athletes and ensure safe conditions for all athletes.“This is all new to everybody,” said Douglas Lipscomb, the varsity boys basketball coach at Wheeler High School in Marietta, Ga., who has not had disabled athletes on his team. “As a coach, you’re worried about safety issues for all players, especially with basketball as a contact sport. But in coaching, a lot of situations are dealt with on an individual basis. This is a new area.”Bob Ferraro, the founder and chief executive of the National High School Coaches Association, said coaches may need special training in accommodating disabled athletes.“It’s got everyone thinking,” Ferraro said. “It’s unfortunate we don’t do more with the rules as far as incorporating the challenges that some athletes have. A coach’s role is to provide opportunities for all athletes. And it does challenge the coach tremendously.”In a significant inclusion case in Maryland, Tatyana McFadden, now 23, sued the Howard County Board of Education and won the right to compete in interscholastic competition as a wheelchair athlete during the 2007 track season.“I think more schools are understanding this is important,” said McFadden’s mother, Deborah. The McFaddens helped promote a state measure requiring schools to include disabled students in sports and other extracurricular programs. At least 12 other states have enacted measures similar to the Maryland law.“We hope the law will pressure people toward inclusion,” Deborah McFadden said. “But without a federal or state law, it’s at the will and pleasure of coaches to include kids. Some coaches are fabulous and say, ‘I have no idea how to do this, but I’m willing to try.’ There are resources out there. But we’re a long way from full inclusion.”The extent to which a school or a coach might need to make accommodations depends on the sport and the disability. In 1990, Louisiana was among the first states to start a wheelchair division for track and field, and Minnesota has expanded bowling, softball, floor hockey and soccer to include wheelchair athletes. Other states have followed, creating separate leagues or rules for integrating disabled athletes.Mary Kate Callahan, a 17-year-old senior at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Ill., began swimming when she was 6 and hoped to join her high school team. Because of a rare neurological disease she contracted as an infant, Callahan does not have the use of her legs.Callahan was told that she could not compete at a statewide competition and that her points earned in meets would not be added to her team’s totals.“I really wanted to have a true swim meet,” Callahan said. “I wanted to compete against the best. Swimming is part of my high school experience.”Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan took on Callahan’s case as a co-counsel and helped win a settlement in September that allowed her to swim at the state meet, along with at least six other high school girls with disabilities.The attorney general’s office is continuing to litigate on behalf of all student-athletes with disabilities for a settlement, and Callahan is seeking to participate on her school’s track team this spring.“We didn’t change much,” Renee Miller, Callahan’s swim coach, said of how the team accommodated Callahan in the pool. “We made sure we had a bus to accommodate a wheelchair so she could travel with us and made sure that schools we traveled to could accommodate her.“This is a unique area for a lot of coaches, and sometimes you have to make it up as you go. You need to do that for a lot of kids, though.”Miller said she was concerned about the way Callahan would be treated at meets at other schools. “We wanted total inclusion, and I knew the issue with the association wasn’t moving quickly enough for Mary Kate,” she said, referring to the Illinois High School Association. “We realized there would be some obstacles to overcome, but we didn’t think it would be as big as it was. It was breaking new ground."Some athletes have faced arguments that their inclusion may pose a safety risk.Rose Hollermann, 17, of Elysian, Minn., wanted to compete in track at her school. Hollermann uses a wheelchair as a result of a car accident in 2001.Hollermann, who wrote a 15-page paper on Pistorius for a school assignment, had competed in basketball, sled hockey and track in middle school. She wanted to race against able-bodied track athletes, and she requested that the Minnesota State High School League create a system so her points could count toward the team’s total in competitions.Initially, the state association had concerns about safety issues like wheelchair collisions, according to a lawyer who represented the group.“They’re big, complex machines,” said Kevin Beck, the lawyer. “Safety is always a big issue.”A separate wheelchair division was created, in which Hollermann mostly raced alone, and her points did not count toward the team’s total.“I’m a competitive person,” Hollermann said. “And they put me in a place where I wasn’t very competitive, just in a race by myself. I almost hit people because they didn’t even realize there was a race going on.”She added: “I just didn’t get the fact that they were saying I had an advantage because I was in a wheelchair. How do I have an advantage because I can’t use half of my body? It didn’t make any sense to me.”Hollermann won a legal settlement last year that allowed her to race alongside able-bodied athletes.Chapple, the deaf tennis player, also reached an agreement with her state association. The settlement with the Arizona Interscholastic Association allowed her the use of an interpreter.“We’ve reinforced our process regarding children with disabilities,” said Charles Schmidt, the associate executive director of the association. “We want every child to have an opportunity to participate.”