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

(Continued from page 1)

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

"This is a huge victory," Lakowski said. "This creates an opportunity for national leadership and uniformity."

She said Maryland is the only state with legislation requiring equal access to sports teams for students with disabilities. Many states have programs to help such students, but it's a patchwork.

Georgia, she said, is a model for the nation, with a 10-year-old partnership between schools and an adaptive sports program that has started comprehensive adaptive sports in every season.

The letter encourages public schools to review their sports programs to make sure they're making every effort to allow students with physical and mental disabilities to participate.

According to the Department of Education, the letter is intended to "clarify" each school's responsibilities, not establish new rules or regulations.

For example, a school does not have to guarantee a disabled student a spot on a team, just an opportunity to try out and not be discriminated against because of "presumptions and stereotypes," the letter says.

"Federal civil rights laws require schools to provide equal opportunities, not give anyone an unfair head start. So schools don't have to change the essential rules of the game, and they don't have to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote in a blog post Friday. "But they do need to make reasonable modifications ... to ensure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else."

For example, a school might provide a visual cue to a runner who cannot hear a starter's pistol, or waive the rule of a "two-hand" touch in a swim meet for a one-armed swimmer.

Maine has several high-profile examples of disabled athletes, including DiPietro and Kouros.

DiPietro has been playing on teams since elementary school and is still playing as a high school senior, said her mother, Ann DiPietro.

"It wasn't a hard process, but it was a lot of work," said Ann DiPietro, describing meetings with coaches and working with the Maine Principals' Association to ensure that her daughter had access to sports at school.

Thoreck said Cape Elizabeth teams have other students with disabilities, including a blind swimmer who counts his strokes and competes with no special accommodation.

Being on the team is "important for that student, but it's also important for the entire student body to have that sensitivity," Thoreck said. "It's part of athletics."

"Maybe this will inspire some kids to get out there," said Andrea Kouros, Christina's mother. "Everybody just wants to be part of the team."

She said the school's support for her daughter has gone beyond sports. Because Christina needs a special wheelchair for track events, the school's shop class recently acquired plans for a chair and intends to build one as a project.

Thoreck hopes to distribute those plans to other athletic directors so other schools can make the chairs for athletes who need them.

At Deering High School, 15-year-old Bridget Lally, who has Down syndrome, is on the swim team. Her mother, Angie Lally, a math teacher at Windham High School, said she got Bridget involved in sports at an early age.

"I know the importance of sports and being part of a group, the social part that goes with the exercise, the competition, " Lally said. "Sports are good for all kids."

The coaches have been supportive and Bridget couldn't be happier, her mother said.

"If you ask her, she says she won. That's how she feels. She did it, so she won," Lally said.

Her coach, Angie Marcotte, said she has made accommodations for Bridget, such as setting a modified practice and race schedule and putting her only in short freestyle races.

At the meets, Marcotte said, the other team members line the pool and cheer Bridget as she swims.

Marcotte said she welcomed the Department of Education's letter Friday, although she was already open to any student who wanted to try out for the swim team.

There are several swimmers with learning disabilities on the Deering team. Marcotte writes down the practice drills and repeats instructions to help them train.

"I welcome all the swimmers I can," she said. "I think that makes the swim team better, having a variety of backgrounds and abilities."

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

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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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