A Sporting Chance

In Minnesota, disabled athletes finally get some recognition

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Ernie Burnham Jr. scampers across the floor, swings his hockey stick, and slaps the puck toward the net. But the defense is ready for him. The goalie blocks the puck, and there is a blur of bodies, crutches, and wheelchairs as players scramble for possession.

A teammate escapes from the pack with the puck and passes it to Ernie. 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 at Minneapolis’ South High School. The Tigers have scored against the Bloomington Flyers in the season opener.

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 (MAAA) program, but that soon will come to an end. Beginning next fall, the program will be integrated into the Minnesota State High School League, the first state scholastic athletic authority in the nation to sanction interscholastic athletics for disabled students.

“It’s the best thing to happen to us,” says Edward Prohofsky, one of the founding members of the MAAA and athletic director of the Minneapolis school district. “From the time we started, my desire was to go out of business. [Sponsorship] should not be the responsibility of a voluntary organization. It should be a school organization.”

Federal law requires schools to offer disabled students the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities that are equal to those offered to the nondisabled. And, under Minnesota law, schools must follow a policy of inclusion. “Traditionally, the approach has been to organize separate programs,” says Frank Laski, a lawyer at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. What the Minnesota state league is doing, he says, “demonstrates that other states and school systems are behind the times.”

Jim Christy, a support-services facilitator at South High who was born with cerebral palsy, remembers that when he was an 8th grader, he asked 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,’” Christy recalls.

Later, as a student at the University of Minnesota, 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. Then, along with Prohofsky and several others, they formed the MAAA, 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,” says Christy. “You know what it means to win, to lose, and to try your hardest and still lose.”

Since its creation in the early 1970s, the MAAA has evolved from an organization made up of a few ragtag intramural teams that virtually relied on pickup games to an organization that offers three sports for students from 21 school districts. Begun as a program for the physically disabled, the group established a second division in the fall of 1990 for those with mental disabilities. Both divisions now offer indoor soccer in the fall, indoor hockey in the winter, and indoor softball in the spring. All of the participating teams are from the districts in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, except Rochester, which is some 90 miles southeast.

Many schools and districts do not have enough disabled students to play, so teams tend to be made up of students from a number of schools and districts. Players on the South High team, for example, come from a number of Minneapolis high schools, although most are South students.

“It wasn’t a second-rate program,” Cathy Peterson, athletic director at South, says of the MAAA. Still, she notes, the athletes wondered why they were not receiving the same trophies as the athletes on the regular teams. By the early 1980s, MAAA promoters began making pitches to the state league. “They were supportive, but they didn’t see the need,” Prohofsky says. “They didn’t think there were enough kids involved.”

The turning point came two years ago when Peterson won a seat on the league’s board and pressed the issue. In November, the league adopted adaptive sports. 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 a bit more time to develop a game plan for the areas beyond the metropolis. “We’ll have to work out the logistics of travel,” adds Kenneth LaCroix, superintendent of Hastings school district, which began participating in the MAAA about three years ago. “That will be one of the problems. I think those are obstacles that are worth overcoming to have the program.”

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 rules 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 chairs.

Peterson says the injury rate today is about the same as it is for players on the regular teams. She did ask the parents of one student if they wanted him to continue playing after he had knee surgery. They said let him play. “Before this, his mother said he always felt he was a handicapped person,” Peterson says. “Now he feels he’s a South High student.”

That the MAAA has made it possible for these youths to compete athletically has made all the difference for some. Ernie Burnham Sr., who is on hand to watch Ernie Jr. and the Tigers take on the Flyers, says participation in sports has given his son “confidence to do things that he never had a chance to do before.” Burnham has also noticed that Ernie’s fine motor skills, which are impaired, have improved since he began playing in his freshman year. “It’s just amazing to watch these kids play,” he adds.

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 boys’ cross-country team.

“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,” says Ernie Jr., damp with sweat and breathing hard. “For once, the orthopedically handicapped and special education students 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 players, a girl in a wheelchair, to squirt water into her mouth. The girl’s face radiates joy. After all, the Tigers have won, 6-2.

Vol. 04, Issue 07, Pages 12-13

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