Published Online: November 23, 2009
Published in Print: December 2, 2009, as A Level Playing Field

GAO Probes Access of Students With Disabilities to Sports

Ensuring that students with disabilities are included in physical education and sports programs is receiving some high-level attention.

Although schools have made great strides educating students with disabilities in mainstreamed academic classrooms, some advocates and physical educators say sports programs and physical education classes are the final frontier for full inclusion in public schools.

In the past few years, advocates for such students have been demanding greater inclusion of students with disabilities in sports. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is conducting a report on the issue, and a state law in Maryland that creates more accountability for schools on how they provide athletic opportunities to those students could become a model for other states, or even federal legislation, advocates say.

Federal law prohibits discrimination against students on the basis of disability, but a lack of guidelines, standards, and regulations on how schools should provide equal physical education and athletic opportunities leaves schools struggling to figure out how to make it happen. That lack of clarity means inconsistency from state to state, district to district, and even school to school within the same district in how students with disabilities are included in athletic activities.

“There is uneven application of the laws,” says Katherine Beh Neas, the vice president of government relations for Easter Seals, a Chicago-based advocacy group for people with disabilities and their families. “Schools don’t know what they can and should be doing to include the students with disabilities in sports.

“There is just this basic assumption they can’t do it,” she says. “Oftentimes, nobody has taken the time to figure out how. If you look at sports and things happening on school grounds, these kids could be included without a lot of difficulty.”

A Level Playing Field

Photography and Audio: Jay Westcott for Education Week

For their part, school administrators say the lack of federal guidance, too few highly qualified physical education teachers and coaches, not enough funding, and the increased priority on academics and testing have made it challenging for schools to meet the athletic needs of students with disabilities. And the parents of such students, as well as students themselves, are often hesitant for them to join sports out of fear of injury or ridicule, school officials say.

But access to athletic opportunities during childhood and youth is critical for students with disabilities to be able to maintain good health and weight and to learn how to live active lifestyles as they move into adulthood, advocates say.

More than 50 million Americans have a documented disability of some type. About 56 percent of people with disabilities do not engage in any physical activity, and only 23 percent of people with disabilities are active for at least 30 minutes three or more times a week, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics.


Last year, Maryland passed a landmark law, the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act, that requires district boards of education to develop policies to include students with disabilities in their physical education classes and athletic activities. The law requires that students be provided reasonable accommodations to participate, have the chance to try out for school teams, and have access to alternative opportunities such as Special Olympics-type teams or events that include students with and without disabilities. It is the only state law of its kind in the nation.

The Maryland education department will investigate complaints and can withhold money from schools or school systems that do not comply. The law gives schools three years to implement the requirements.

The high-profile case of a high school track-and-field athlete who uses a wheelchair and sued in 2006 for the right to race on the same track as her teammates helped inspire the law, proponents say.

Tatyana McFadden, who is a Paralympics medalist and world-record holder, won a lawsuit against the Howard County, Md., district to be able to compete on the same track, at the same time, as her teammates. She had been required to race alone on a separate track, she says, out of concern that her wheelchair would pose safety concerns.

“They would have everyone else run, and then they would stop the meet and have me run by myself, a person in a wheelchair going around alone,” says Ms. McFadden, now a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is majoring in dietetics and takes part in the university’s adapted-sports program. “Having it like that hurt a little bit. People feel sorry for you when they see you like that. People didn’t see how athletic I was.”

U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., says Ms. McFadden’s case made him aware of the need for schools to have guidance on how to offer students with disabilities access to sports.

“It is important that students with disabilities are included in all school activities, and that schools have the information they need to provide the best experience,” Mr. Van Hollen said in a statement. “As much of the data on athletic equity is anecdotal, I joined with several colleagues to request that the GAO explore the issue further.”

The GAO is assessing athletic opportunities for students with disabilities in physical education classes and extracurricular activities, and will determine the U.S. Department of Education’s role in helping states and schools provide those opportunities. Its report is scheduled to be released in late June.

“All students, including students with disabilities, benefit from physical activity,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, who requested the report along with Mr. Van Hollen and other lawmakers. “We look forward to hearing from GAO about how to better understand and eventually remove the barriers schools face in helping students with disabilities participate in physical education and athletics.”

Ms. Neas hopes the report will give parents ammunition as they take on school officials about providing greater opportunities.

“We were hoping with the GAO study, it would give parents additional resources to go to their principal to help them expand or open up some of the athletic programs,” she says. “It will show them they really can include students with disabilities.”

Justin Thomas, center, and Nick Cotsorodis, right, laugh after their match. During the winter, students in the Allied Sports Program bowl, and in the spring they play softball.
—Jay Westcott for Education Week

Ms. McFadden says that for her, sports have been nothing short of life-changing. She was born with spina bifida and was adopted at age 6 from a Russian orphanage. She did not have a wheelchair and walked with her hands.

“My mom brought me here and got me involved with sports programs—swimming, ice hockey, table tennis,” Ms. McFadden says. “Sports helped build me. It was about more than athleticism; it was about sportsmanship. I loved the competition.

“Having an athletic background helps everyone,” she says. “Without sports, I’d be really obese and unable to do a lot of things. My life would be different socially.”


School staff members often lack training and experience in how to adapt physical education classes for students with disabilities—and the quality of services is reduced as a result, says Timothy Davis, an assistant professor of physical education at the State University of New York at Cortland and the chairman of the Adapted Physical Education National Standards, a project established by a professional group to create standards and a certification program for the profession.

Only 13 states suggest additional training for physical educators to teach adapted physical education, according to Mr. Davis. Most states do not require any additional certification.

Teachers in an undergraduate program for physical education are often required to take one three-credit course in adapted physical education in the last year of the program, he notes. “By the time they get interested in adapted physical education, they are done and they are out student-teaching,” Mr. Davis says. “Then because they have had the one course, they get a job in a district teaching adapted physical education.

“The lack of standards for hiring highly qualified teachers is a huge frustration,” he says, “that perpetuates the lack of service, the lack of quality, and ultimately has a tremendous impact on the quality of life of students with disabilities.”

About 1,700 teachers in the United States are nationally certified in adapted physical education through his group, Mr. Davis says.

Because of a lack of training, physical education teachers often feel uncomfortable attending individualized-education-program, or IEP, meetings for students with disabilities—and the absence of those educators troubles him.

“Even if we are not invited to the meeting, we have to knock on the door. It’s your student, in your class,” Mr. Davis says. “If the physical education teacher is not at the meeting, somebody else makes the idea for placement. Somebody else is writing the goals and objectives for physical education. We need to be there; we need the representation.”

Sometimes an attitude shift can make a big difference, he says, in how to teach sports to students with disabilities.

“You focus on ability and not disability,” Mr. Davis says. “Focus on what a kid can do, and you can make it work. If you say, ‘He can’t run, he can’t throw,’ I cringe. Tell me what he can do, and now we can start teaching.”


For students with disabilities, too often being in physical education class or sports has meant being left on the sidelines. Such a student might serve as a “coach” or “scorekeeper,” or receive physical therapy instead of physical education, says David Martinez, who was named the 2009 National Adapted Physical Education Teacher of the Year by the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation.

Mr. Martinez, an adapted physical education specialist in Cherokee County, Ga., says adapted physical educators must think constantly of how to make an activity work for a child, or come up with a piece of equipment or technology that could assist the student.

Kurt Koch, hugs his son, Joey Koch, on the sidelines of the match.
—Jay Westcott for Education Week

He researched and built a Frisbee-throwing machine, for instance, that is switch-operated for some of his students. It lets them throw a disc 30 to 40 feet with accuracy.

Talking with students about what they think would be ways to make a sport work for them also can be helpful, Mr. Martinez says.

“We really want to encourage these students to be active for their whole lifetimes in the community, with their family and friends,” he says. “We want to teach them they have the ability to say, ‘Hmm, how can I adjust things?’ to participate throughout their whole lives.”

Georgia has 12 nationally certified teachers of adapted physical education, and Mr. Martinez says he is one of two in Cherokee County.

“We have a very supportive school district,” he says of the 38,000-student county system. “It’s very motivating to feel that support.”

He says he and the other adapted physical education specialist consult with general physical education teachers to make sure students with disabilities are fully active. The specialists provide direct services for students with severe disabilities if needed. Students with disabilities may go to general physical education class a couple of times a week, and Mr. Martinez may meet with them for extra practice to reinforce dribbling and passing skills for basketball, for example.

Noting the reluctance of many students with disabilities to join in sports, he suggests what he says are creative ways to include those students in the athletic culture of high school. The Cherokee County district, for example, created a varsity-letter program for students in Special Olympics. If students complete two seasons of a Special Olympic sport, they can wear a varsity letter in that sport for the school.

“It lets them enjoy a part of high school culture,” Mr. Martinez says. “It lets parents celebrate along with their children. It lets nondisabled peers say, ‘Wow, that’s neat, what did you letter in? What position do you play?’ It creates a true appreciation for individual differences.”

Some schools offer alternatives to varsity sports specifically designed to allow students who have disabilities to play on teams with peers who don’t.

The Baltimore County, Md., school district began the inclusive Allied Sports Program 15 years ago. It offers soccer in the fall, bowling in the winter, and softball in the spring. All team activities are offered with modifications. The rules can be adapted from game to game.

For example, soccer for a player in a wheelchair could mean using smaller-than- regulation fields and smaller goals. The rules might be changed to allow someone to push the wheelchair around if needed, says Ron Belinko, the coordinator of athletics for the 103,000- student Baltimore County schools. Bowling might allow a student to use a ramp to roll the ball down the lane.

Mr. Belinko says he enjoys watching not only the games, but the faces of the people in the stands.

“You see parents and grandparents attending these events,” he says. “They are just so happy to see their youngster participate and represent their schools. It’s overwhelming to watch the reactions of the crowd.”

Vol. 29, Issue 13, Pages 22-24

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