By John Metallo
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently announced a decision that requires schools to allow students with disabilities to participate in interscholastic athletics. Specifically, the decision noted, “Disabled students who want to play for their school could join traditional teams if officials can make ‘reasonable modifications’ to accommodate them.”
If those adjustments would fundamentally alter a sport or give the student an advantage, the department is directing the school to create parallel athletic programs that have comparable standing to traditional programs. The truth is that the inclusion of disabled students in athletics and other activities has long been the norm in American schools with many high school athletes moving on to success at the highest levels including: Bruce Jenner (dyslexia), Olympic decathlon; Jim Abbott (born with one arm), Olympic gold medalist and owner of a no-hitter for the New York Yankees; and Gail Devers (Grave’s disease), Olympic sprint and hurdle star.
Teachers, coaches, extracurricular activities advisers and principals have long touted the positive impact that sports and other activities have on academic achievement in the classroom. Most call it a “no-brainer.” As a matter of fact, most high school athletic teams, clubs and extracurricular groups place a much higher percentage of its members on the school honor roll than the student body at large.
Finally, we are seeing some guidance from Washington that will truly help the students in our public schools. As a veteran of more than 40 years as a teacher, coach (football, basketball, track, cross country), athletic director, high school principal and superintendent of schools, my philosophy has always been that a school cannot be totally successful unless it provides opportunities for all students in the Four A’s (academics, athletics, arts, activities). For the first time ever, the three A’s that go beyond the classroom are being championed by our leaders in Washington.
While this landmark decision provides hope for more participation in athletics and activities by school students, there is still a need for concern about the funding to truly make the initiative a success. On the one hand, Washington is calling for an increase in the number of students who participate in extracurriculars at the same exact time that school districts across the nation are being forced to drop sports and related activities due to a lack of funding.
This is the quandary in which education officials will now find themselves. I guess it comes down to cost versus value. To those of us who have seen the impact these programs have on students, the value is there regardless of the cost. To others, these programs are seen as frills. Which voice will be loudest? I hope the former, for the sake of the students.
John Metallo of Slingerlands is a retired teacher and administrator.