January 26, 2013

Feds: Everyone deserves a chance to play

Despite the federal directive, Maine schools are already getting kids with disabilities to be part of the team.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

At Fryeburg Academy, the field hockey team plays with an orange ball and goals painted orange for a visually impaired player, Christina DiPietro.

click image to enlarge

An orange ball is one of the accommodations school athletics officials have made for Fryeburg Academy’s Christina DiPietro, a field hockey player who is legally blind, seen playing against Yarmouth last year.

Press Herald file photo/John Ewing

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Cape Elizabeth’s Christina Kouros, who was born with one leg, has competed in track and field and skiing.

Press Herald file photo/Derek Davis

Additional Photos Below

At Cape Elizabeth High School, Christina Kouros, who was born with one leg, uses a sit-ski to compete on the school's Nordic ski team. She also races in her wheelchair in track meets.

Cape Elizabeth's athletic administrator, Jeff Thoreck, said the school worked with the Maine Principals' Association to open up track events to disabled students.

"It was amazing how willing and how motivated people were to make this work," he said. "Maine is very open-minded and very willing to take on change like this."

The federal Department of Education issued a letter to schools nationwide Friday, saying they must make "reasonable modifications" to allow students with disabilities to play extracurricular sports under existing law.

In Maine, that effort is already happening.

The letter, from Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, is unlikely to set off any big changes in Maine, said Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals' Association, which coordinates statewide policy for extracurricular activities from sports teams to drama clubs.

"It brings attention to something that I hope we're already doing," Durost said Friday. "I'd like to think that most educators, coaches and school systems don't discriminate against students with disabilities."

Maine is one of 12 states that have policies for allowing students with disabilities to compete in team sports. In 2011, the principals' association announced new rules to enable wheelchair athletes to compete in track meets.

To allow disabled athletes to compete, the association announced a different scoring system, additional heats and other changes.

If a school cannot accommodate a student, it is encouraged to partner with a community organization -- an adaptive sports program or Special Olympics, for example -- to help the student.

Philip Geelhoed, president and chief executive officer of Special Olympics Maine, said his organization has partnerships with 30 Maine schools to form teams with students with and without disabilities to train and compete in a program called Unified Sports.

"Unified Sports is rapidly growing," Geelhoed said. "We are thrilled to think that many more school officials could now consider adding this to their offerings, in light of this new directive from the Department of Education."

The letter was prompted by a federal investigation that showed students with disabilities do not always get equal opportunity to play, and directed the Department of Education to clarify the regulations.

Terri Lakowski, a youth sports advocate who led the coalition behind the investigation, said the details in Friday's letter are critical to taking action at the school level.

Lakowski, who worked on Title IX issues for the Women's Sports Foundation, compared the fight for students with disabilities to Title IX, the landmark 1972 law that required schools to provide equal sports opportunities to girls and women.

Federal regulations have required schools to accommodate disabled students, but "didn't explain or define what it meant to have an equal program," she said.

"It was left to each school, and in some schools that meant full inclusion (for disabled students) while in some instances they were just the water boy or water girl or assistant team manager," said Lakowski.

The detail in Friday's letter will change that, she said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Christina Kouros uses a sit-ski to compete on the Cape Elizabeth Nordic ski team in 2011. The federal Department of Education on Friday told schools nationwide that they must provide sports opportunities for disabled students. State officials say that is already happening in Maine.

2011 Press Herald file photo/Gregory Rec

click image to enlarge

Fryeburg’s Christina DiPietro is legally blind, yet was one of the top players on her team last year. Home games are played with an orange ball and goals to help her see them.

2012 Press Herald file photo/John Ewing


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