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Minn. Creates Athletics League for the Disabled

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MINNEAPOLIS--Ernie Burnham Jr. scampers across the floor, swings his hockey stick, and slaps the orange puck toward the net.

But the defense is ready for him. The goalie blocks the puck, and a blur of bodies, crutches, and wheelchairs scrambles for possession.

A teammate escapes from the pack with the puck and passes it to Mr. Burnham. He pivots, swings, and watches as an opponent deflects the puck off her wheelchair.

The next try, though, brings success as the puck glides past the goalie and into the net.

Cheers erupt from the bleachers here at South High School during the Tigers' season opener against the Bloomington Flyers.

For years now, the Tigers, the Flyers, and other teams in the Twin Cities metropolitan area have been competing in the Minnesota Association for Adapted Athletics program, but that soon will come to an end.

Beginning next fall, the program will be integrated into the Minnesota State High School League, making the state scholastic athletic authority the first in the nation to sanction interscholastic athletics for disabled students.

The league's board will decide this month on a timetable for sponsoring competitions for disabled secondary students statewide.

"It's the best thing to happen to us,'' said Edward G. Prohofsky, a founding member of the M.A.A.A. and the athletic director of the Minneapolis school district.

"From the time we started, my desire was to go out of business,'' Mr. Prohofsky said. Sponsorship "should not be the responsibility of a voluntary organization. It should be a school organization.''

Moreover, said the athletic director, league sponsorship will make it "less of a problem for advocates to go to the community and get support for programs.''

Federal law requires schools to offer disabled students the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities that are equal to those offered to the nondisabled.

Under Minnesota law, schools must follow a policy of inclusion.

"Traditionally, the approach has been to organize separate programs,'' said Frank Laski, a lawyer at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

What the Minnesota state league is doing, he said, "demonstrates that other states and school systems are behind the times.''

'Why Can't We Play?'

Jim Christy recalls that he was in the 8th grade when he asked Mr. Prohofsky, then a coach and teacher, "Why can't we play other kids in other schools?''

"He said, 'That's a good question. I don't have an answer,''' said Mr. Christy, who was born with cerebral palsy.

As a student at the University of Minnesota, Mr. Christy, along with Bob Anderson, a friend who had a congenital heart ailment, began looking for ways to adapt the rules from the state league's handbook for students with disabilities.

Along with Mr. Prohofsky and several others, they formed the M.A.A.A., modeling it on the state league and making only the changes necessary to accommodate physical disability.

Hockey, for example, is played on hardwood gymnasium floors instead of ice, and because some players are more ambulatory than others, running is not allowed.

"It builds self-esteem, self-worth,'' said Mr. Christy, a former teacher who now is a support-services facilitator for South High School. "You know what it means to win, to lose, and to try your hardest and still lose.''

From Rags to Recognition

Since its creation in the early 1970's, the M.A.A.A. has evolved from an organization made up of a few ragtag intramural teams that virtually relied on pickup games to an organization that operates two divisions offering three sports each for students from 21 school districts.

Begun as a program for the physically or orthopedically disabled, the group established a second division in the fall of 1990 for those with mental disabilities.

Both divisions offer indoor soccer in the fall, indoor hockey in the winter, and indoor softball in the spring, mirroring the seasons in which their contemporaries on freshman and varsity teams play.

All of the participating teams are from the districts of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and their suburbs, with the exception of Rochester, which is some 90 miles southeast.

Because every school or district may not have enough disabled students to field a team, each team tends to be made up of students from a number of schools and districts. Players on the South High team, for example, come from other Minneapolis high schools as well, although most are South High students.

"It wasn't a second-rate program,'' Cathy Peterson, the athletic director at South High School, said of the M.A.A.A. At the same time, she continued, the athletes wondered why they were not receiving the same medals and trophies as the athletes on the regular teams.

By the early 1980's, M.A.A.A. promoters began making pitches to the state league. "They were supportive, but they didn't see the need,'' said Mr. Prohofsky. "They didn't think there were enough kids involved.''

The turning point came two years ago when Ms. Peterson won a seat on the league's board and pressed the issue. In November, the league adopted adaptive
sports.

Emphasizing 'Sameness'

Recognition by the state high school league emphasizes "sameness'' for these students who so often are considered different.

The rules, with a few exceptions, are expected to be the same, as will tournaments.

One feature that is liable to remain unique, though, is the coeducational composition of the teams.

Because interscholastic adaptive sports are already offered in the Twin Cities, league officials decided that they could take over those programs almost immediately.

But they decided they needed more time to develop a game plan for the areas beyond the metropolis.

David V. Stead, the executive director of the state league, said that in order to gauge the scope of the undertaking, the league will talk to the state's Special Olympics organization to learn the number of programs, staffing needs, and costs for the high-school-age population it serves.

At that point, the league will likely survey students to find out what sports they are interested in.

Although a starting date of fall 1994 has been mentioned, some M.A.A.A. and league members believe that goal may be too optimistic.

Timing and logistics, in fact, seem to be the only concerns that are being voiced.

"There is not one superintendent I have contacted who has been negative about this,'' Mr. Stead said.

"The spirit of inclusivity is not new to Minnesota,'' said Mary Jo Weingarten, the president of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. "The implementation will be the challenge.''

"We'll have to work out the logistics of travel,'' added Kenneth J. LaCroix, the superintendent of the Hastings school district, which began participating in the M.A.A.A. about three years ago. "That will be one of the problems. I think those are obstacles that are worth overcoming to have the program.''

Some of the ideas league officials are considering, especially for the more sparsely populated areas of the state, are offering individual sports and employing technology.

For example, a student at one high school could compete with one from another school in archery. With their coaches nearby, both would start the match at 4 P.M., stop at 4:30 P.M., and have their coaches telephone each other with the results at 4:35 P.M. They would meet in person to compete at tournaments.

Another option would be to put to use such technology as interactive video so that athletes in the farthest northeast corner of the state could compete against opponents in the farthest southwest corner.

"There are all kinds of possibilities like that that exist,'' said Mr. Stead.

Creativity Required

Creativity, of course, has always been the name of the adaptive game, as has experimentation.

Hockey players in wheelchairs generally play defense. Those with limited hand movement have their sticks taped to the side of their chairs.

Before electric wheelchairs became common, parents would push the chairs. The rule called for them to maneuver according to the players' commands. But parents sometimes became so caught up in the game that they ignored the teenagers. The players, expecting to be moved backward for example, were flying out of the wheelchairs.

Ms. Peterson said the injury rate today is about the same as it is for players on the regular teams.

She said she did ask the parents of one student if they wanted him to continue to play after he had knee surgery.

They said let him play. "Before this, [his mother said] he always felt he was a handicapped person,'' Ms. Peterson said. "Now he feels he's a South High student.''

That the M.A.A.A. has made it possible for these youths to compete athletically has made all the difference for some.

"He appears to be able to do more things, and it has given him confidence to do things that he never had a chance to do before,'' said Ernie Burnham, whose son scored two goals for the Tigers in their season opener.

Mr. Burnham has also noticed that his son's fine motor skills, which are impaired, have shown improvement since he began playing in his freshman year.

"It's just amazing to watch these kids play,'' added Mr. Burnham.

Despite the paraphernalia of wheelchairs and crutches, the pace out on the gymnasium floor is swift, occasionally too swift.

In a recent hockey game, the Bloomington coach was up on her feet, arguing that a player had just committed his fourth running violation. The referee sent him to the penalty box for two minutes.

Another player tipped over. Her teammate picked her back up, and off he raced.

As part of the M.A.A.A. program, South High has tried to treat the adapted athletes the same as league players. Between hockey periods, for example, the girls' dance line provides entertainment.

And on the gymnasium wall, the state-championship banner for the 1986 adapted soccer team hangs right next to the championship banner for the 1988 men's cross-country team.

"It's a lot of fun,'' said Justin Eckblad, a South High sophomore who plays defense in his wheelchair. "You play a lot of people from all over the area.''

Said Ernie Burnham Jr., "It's a good league because everybody, whether they're in a wheelchair or not, gets a chance to experience what a competitive event is like.''

"For once,'' added the senior, damp with sweat and breathing hard, "the orthopedically handicapped and special education are actually a part of the fabric of the high school.''

The game over, handshakes are exchanged all around. The Tigers' coach slips the helmet off one of the wheelchair-bound players to squirt water into her mouth.

Her face radiates joy. After all, the Tigers have won, 6-2.

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