Owen Groesser, a Michigan student with Down Syndrome was on Sports Center this week. It's something people might see more often because of a new directive from the US Department of Education.
The Federal Government is asking all schools to give students with disabilities a fair shot to play on traditional teams or to create parallel programs. The Department of Education delivered that message Friday morning to schools everywhere. The announcement is a forceful message to athletic programs, which are now trying to figure out all its implications.
"I think there has always been a high value placed on participation in high school sports," said John Johnson, the communications director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association. "These programs do so many wonderful things for kids; that's why all kinds of kids desire to have access to them."
Education officials are insisting schools cannot exclude students from participating in sports based on disabilities. It says students should always be given the opportunity to try out for a sport.
"The goal of the guidance was to help clarify on a broad scale what is expected of school districts in handling students with disabilities." Leslee Fritz, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
It isn't a new law but a clarification of title IX. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights applauds the action.
"Any steps that can be taken to ensure that access is open and available to all people is a step in the right direction," said Fritz.
Those who have sufficient skill to play when reasonably accommodated should play on the team. Reasonable accommodations means the fundamental aspects of the sport aren't changed nor is an advantage given to any student. The new guidance does not guarantee disabled students get a spot on the team. Instead, it guarantees the opportunity to try out. It also requires districts to make reasonable modifications to sports so student with disabilities get a level playing field and can be successful.
Frtiz gave an example to clarify what "reasonable accommodation" means. For example, if there is a track student who tries out and is one of the fastest at a school but is deaf and can't hear the starter gun, then schools should accommodate the student by creating a visual signal of some kind to let the runner know when the race starts.
"...if it's safe for [the disabled kids] and for the kids that they will play against, and they have the ability level, then they [should] get that chance to experience [high school sports]." said Rick Schmidt, the Athletic Director at Holt High School. "From what I understand right now, this is maybe an emphasis on making sure that we apply these principles and we follow the guidelines that are already there."
The directive states that if disabled students are unable to participate in existing athletic programs, districts must create other opportunities.
"Schools will be having a lot of conversation in the days and the weeks ahead to make sure that if they need to bring their current efforts to include kids up to a level that's being recommended [they do]," said John Johnson.
"I am sure we will be getting lots of information from our state associations and from the National Education Association. There will be lots of questions from lots of schools and there will be specific instances that people will ask for direction on," said Schmidt.
This new directive means if Owen tries out for the team and is just as good as other players, rather than watching all season and playing in the final home game, he might play all season long.
Owen's mom said on the phone Friday as she prepared for the basketball team's banquet that things like this open the doors to give people with disabilities equal opportunities.
The announcement comes after a Government Accountability Office's report found students with disabilities are not being given the same opportunities as their peers.
The US Department of Education did not set a deadline for schools to comply.
To read the Directive from the Department of Education follow the link below.