Policies Governing Interscholastic Athletics Face Challenges From Athletes Seeking Equal Access

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At 18, Dean Houle is a world-class athlete. With international awards in swimming, weightlifting, shot-put, and track, he is one of the United States' most versatile competitors. In 1978, he won a gold medal in weightlifting in Scotland, in 1980, a bronze in the shot-put in Denmark, and he is in training for meets scheduled for next year.

When he sits in a chair, his chest muscles and arms bulge impressively from a strenuous physical regimen. It is only when he says that he weighs 122 pounds that we realize he is an unusual young man, with the upper body of a superb athlete and the withered lower body and limbs of a victim of cerebral palsy.

Dean's success in athletics is not atypical today, as such student athletes gain the confidence to compete, and as adults learn how to help handicapped students develop their skills. What is different, however, is Dean's involvement in mainstream varsity athletics.

When, in his junior year, Dean wanted more than the challenge of competing against other handicapped athletes, he went out for varsity track at Conard High School in West Hartford, Conn. The school district is committed to full implementation of Public Law 94-142, the education-for-all-handicapped act, and Dean was welcomed to the track team. West Hartford tries not to cut students from team sports (which is not always possible in an indoor sport, such as basketball where space is limited, but almost always possible in outdoor sports--in football, soccer, field hockey, or track where there is adequate space). So Dean competed on crutches, an inspiration to teammates and opponents, as he reduced his time in the 100 meters in one season from 27 to 22.2 seconds.

"My parents never quit on me. My friends kept pushing me. How could I quit on myself?" Dean says.

There will be more students like Dean participating in sports, young people with physical handicaps who have the personal determination, the guidance from teachers, and the support of family and friends to become part of the mainstream in school and society.

No longer satisfied with limited access to all programs, mentally and physically limited students are now challenging the preserve of interscholastic sports. There is just a trickle now--a blind swimmer at one high school, a one-armed wrestler in another. But a deluge of demands by handicapped students is about to begin, and educators undoubtedly are not ready to deal with them.

Administrators and boards of education are often unaware of such trends, but coaches and physical education teachers can probably tell them that, increasingly, handicapped children are saying that they are ready to take their places alongside their classmates as equal partners in athletics programs.

But participation will not be easy. Some people will continue to ask why different people do not participate only with their own kind, in isolation from normal students.

The costs of meeting the requirements of the laws on the handicapped will continue to increase. As the aspirations of the handicapped rise, so too will budgets, and this in a time of declines in enrollment, taxpayers' revolts, and reduced total budgets.

And there will be conflicts between local practices and the state regulations that contradict efforts to encourage handicapped students to participate--for example, eligibility rules based on age.

That was the experience of Mark Gionfriddo, who was also a senior in 1980-81 at West Hartford's Hall High School, across town from Dean's school. Mark, a member of his cross country team as a junior, had suffered in his early school years from learning disabilities. His learning problems had impaired his writing and speech, and, though serious and intelligent, he could not keep pace with his class. His muscle coordination was affected also, and it seemed unlikely when he was in elementary school that he ever would be an athlete.

However, in his secondary-school years, Mark began to catch up. He became active in local student government and with the American Youth Foundation. He discovered that he loved to run and compete; the more he ran, the more he wanted to run. He put in more than 50 miles per week in cross-country training. He represented his school in competition, recognizing that he was not a top runner and would not receive high scores in interscholastic meets.

Mark turned 19 before his senior year began, and that ended his eligibility. Although he continued to compete, his points could not be counted as part of the official team tally. He appealed to the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC), with the support of his parents and the school district, to obtain eligibility. Mark spoke for himself: "Because of my handicapping conditions, I lost several years as a youngster; I should not now be penalized with the loss of eligibility as an over-age athlete." He also appealed to the Office of Civil Rights, which has since rejected the appeal because the CIAC is not a direct recipient of federal funds. The CIAC ruled that Mark was over-age, and therefore ineligible, and that to make an exception to the rule would be to open the floodgates to similar requests.

As an agency of the Connecticut Association of Secondary School Principals, the CIAC was strongly supported by state and national organizations. Scott Thompson, the respected executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said that allowing over-age athletes would pose a danger to young people by encouraging "red-shirting," the practice of holding back an athlete for an extra year's maturity and growth to gain a competitive edge for the individual and thus the team.

Mark Gionfriddo contended, and officials of the school district have continued to argue, that no competitive advantage in a non-contact sport was being sought. As a determined athlete of modest ability, Mark, even at 19, would not win or place high enough to make a difference to his team between victory and defeat.

The CIAC's executive director, John Daly, has continued to respond that there must be no exceptions to the over-age rule.

Even if a crippled student on crutches like Dean Houle should petition, at age 19, to compete as a member of the track team? No exceptions, say association officials.

What about a student with a low I.Q., with limited athletic ability, who has been three or four years behind her class in elementary and junior high school, but starts to catch up in high school, and who, by her senior year, at age 19 or 20, has the determination and self-respect to be a member of a group, to try out for a non-contact sport, such as swimming or tennis? Again, say association officials, the answer is that the over-age rule must be respected to prevent red-shirting from becoming prevalent.

Less than two weeks ago, the New York Times reported that a 21-year-old deaf student in a Massachusetts high school has filed a federal class-action suit against state athletic regulations that bar students older than 19 from interscholastic competition. No doubt there will be many more such challenges.

Central to the resolution of this issue may be what the law of the land really says about equal access and opportunity for students. The physically- and mentally-limited student often falls far behind his peer group. But now, with new hope on the part of the child and parent, and with new skills and the understanding of teachers, coaches, and counselors, the questions have been clearly enunciated: Shall exceptions be made for handicapped, over-age students? Will individual exceptions for handicapped students eventually work to the detriment, even danger, of other students?

Across the board in education, the federal government is trying to give the initiative back to local school districts and the states. With less government pressure, but with more local responsibility for the handicapped, the challenge for the nation is to say what we really believe in and to develop guidelines and policies based on our values and commitments.

Vol. 01, Issue 14, Page 24

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