Local Advocates Weigh Decision to Open School Sports to Disabled

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Children with disabilities who want to play sports must be given a chance to compete, according to a U.S. Department of Education directive issued to school districts nationwide on Friday. 

The department said the directive isn’t a new rule, but rather an attempt to clarify “school districts’ existing legal obligations to provide equal access to extracurricular athletic activities.”

Advocates for children with disabilities in the region greeted the news — but acknowledged the challenges ahead.

“There could be some restructuring of not only funds, and coaches, and but an entire restructuring of how they offer their sports portfolio,” said Matt Schinelli, founder of New Jersey All People Equal, an advocacy group that promotes athletic inclusion for people with disabilities and trains teachers and coaches to modify athletic activities to include students with disabilities.

Under the new federal rules, disabled students who want to play sports can join their school's traditional teams if reasonable modifications can me made. If the accommodations change the nature of the sport too much, the department is directing schools to create parallel athletic programs.

Paul Hooker has been coaching students with disabilities for more than 20 years through his non-profit Challenged Youth Sports of Middletown, New Jersey.

“Our able bodied kids were able to play these sports that our property taxes paid – basketball, little league and all that stuff -- and these kids didn't have anything,” Hooker said.

How school districts will implement the new rules remain to be seen. There is no compliance deadline for schools.

“We work to make our programs inclusive and will review the directive issued today to see how we can expand those efforts,” the New York City’s Department of Education said in a statement.

Bob Haggen got his autistic son involved with sports through Challenged Youth Sports, when he was 7. Justin is now 22.  Haggen welcomed the news, but says challenges in athletics will still exist for many of those with disabilities.

“One thing he might have been good at is wrestling because he's very light and he's very strong,” Haggen said. “But you have to follow directions pretty well and some of the children can't follow directions. So it wouldn't have worked for my son.”

With additional reporting from Christine Streich and the Associated Press.