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New federal guidelines aim to include disabled in school sports

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 26. 2013 10:55PM
Christian Sewell, right, helps his teamate Jack Cody for Nashua North, against Londonderry, during a Unified basketball game held at Londonderry High School on Friday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

MANCHESTER - New Hampshire is ahead in the game when it comes to giving students with disabilities a chance to compete in sports.

The U.S. Department of Education guidelines on offering athletic opportunities released Friday are hardly a new idea in a state with a long history of helping people with disabilities get out and be active.

"We're trying, and I think we're having some success," said Pat Corbin, executive director of the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association. "What I'm most proud of is that New Hampshire has done it because it was the right thing to do. It hasn't been so much in response to federal guidelines."

Corbin said the announcement from the Department of Education is going to raise many questions that don't have answers - including how to coordinate something such as a wheelchair basketball program when the eligible participants are spread across the state. Coming up with the funding when school districts are already strapped for cash will also be an issue.

"There's a lot of questions," Corbin said. "It's not as easy as waving a wand."

According to the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, the guidelines are based on a federal law designed to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities - both physical and intellectual.

"A school district is required to provide a qualified student with a disability an opportunity to benefit from the school district's program equal to that of students without disabilities," according to the guidelines.

Districts must make "reasonable modifications" whenever possible, unless the changes would alter the fundamentals or rules of the game.

NHIAA started its Unified Sports program about four years ago with bowling. The idea was to get kids with intellectual disabilities such as autism or Down syndrome in a social, semi-competitive atmosphere. It has expanded to provide teams in basketball, soccer, track and co-ed volleyball, starting this spring.

"We wanted to engage different populations to be in a position to represent the school in some capacity that they never would have in the past," Corbin said. "These are students who would otherwise not have participated in any capacity in any interscholastic sports or club activity."

Basketball started with six teams and grew to 18 in its second year. The modified rules require three players with disabilities on the court, joined by two "partner" teammates.

There is a state tournament, and the winners take home the same championship hardware as their classmates playing for the varsity team would.

"They are getting the sense they're representing their high school in a very real way and comparable way to the other teams. The impact it's had on schools is absolutely dramatic."

NHIAA has also accommodated students with physical disabilities in skiing, which has a system to adjust times for competitors who require modified equipment, swimming and track and field, Corbin said.

Corbin said addressing opportunities for students with physical disabilities will be complicated and need to develop over time.

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