Ginnie Graham: Disabled to get sporting chance
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Saturday, February 02, 2013
2/02/13 at 4:23 AM
Learn more: Read the U.S. Department of Education’s new directive.
Original Print Headline: Disabled get equal chance in sports
In fifth grade, Amy Wollmershauser signed up for the noncompetitive girls softball league to learn about sports and to be part of a team.
She went to every practice, worked hard to improve her skills at home and showed as much athletic promise as the other players.
But she rode the bench in every game, allowed just a couple of at bats before a silent crowd.
"It broke our hearts and devastated all of us," said her mother, Peggy. "A family learns where their child's place is in the world, too."
Wollmershauser, who has an intellectual disability, never complained - but she never signed up again.
"The message was loud and clear to her - I'm not an athlete and I can't succeed here," she said. "She didn't even attempt to go out again."
Then, the family discovered Special Olympics, and Amy's life changed. She is one of its most successful athletes.
She is in South Korea as one of two Oklahomans competing in the Special Olympics World Games.
At age 37, she has won more than 70 medals, including three gold medals in international competitions. Her speedwalking times rival those of competitors who don't have a disability.
Her mother can't help but wonder what Amy might have accomplished if Title IX, the 1972 law that required equal opportunities for female student-athletes had included disabled students.
That changed last week when the U.S. Department of Education announced that Title IX was being expanded to include students who have disabilities.
"I cannot imagine a better direction for this to go in," Wollmershauser said. "It will promote the interaction of intellectually disabled and regular students in way that is even more common than it is now.
"It can do nothing but advance the understanding between both groups and the gifts each one has to bring. It gives them a right, and a family a right, to hope for more than being shuttled to the back."
Reasonable modifications: The directive states that access to interscholastic, intramural and intercollegiate athletics is a right of students with disabilities and requires schools to make "reasonable modifications" for disabled students.
This doesn't guarantee a disabled student a spot on the team or set different performance standards for disabled students.
The directive offers two examples: A visual cue as well as the starter pistol could be used to accommodate student with a hearing impairment; and waiving the required "two-hand touch" finish in swim meets would allow a one-armed swimmer to compete.
"We believe in the value of participation for all our students, especially disabled students," said Ed Sheakley, executive director of the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association. "We want them to be part of extracurricular activities. If we can make reasonable accommodations to allow them to participate, that should be done."
A 2010 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that disabled students were not getting the equal opportunities to participate in sports that had been granted in the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and bolstered by the 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Modifications will most likely be based on what is done in classrooms and other extracurricular activities, Sheakley said.
"As far as athletics, we believe in inclusion and expanding opportunities for those kids as long as we can make modifications where it doesn't create an unfair advantage for either group of students and doesn't put safety at issue," Sheakley said.
"Safety is always our first concern in making modifications."
More than physical ability: When Title IX protections were extended to women 40 years ago, it transformed sports and our culture.
It forced schools to provide girls an equal chance to compete and with the same quality facilities, programs and training as boys.
Generations of girls have enjoyed competitive sports, and superstar female athletes and professional women's leagues have emerged.
Sports participation is more than just showing off physical ability.
"When Amy was in school, it focused her on fitness, training and self-responsibility," said her mother. "She finally saw herself as a competitor worthy of respect.
"She has worked full-time for 15 years and has confidence in what she does. I don't know how she would have seen herself as a worker without first having seen herself as a competitor."
Wollmershauser worries about some coaches dismissing the athletic potential of disabled students whether on purpose or by accident.
"It's been a benign neglect of an entire group of athletes," she said.
It is hoped that this expansion of Title IX will bring about the same changes for disabled students that it did for females students 40 years ago.
Changing public assumptions about the abilities of disabled students to train and compete alongside other student may take a while, as it did for female athletes. But like female students, disabled students will finally have opportunities they've long been denied.
"It will speak strong to individuals and families to say you have a place here, you belong here and you belong to us."
Athletic head coach Meg Corn (left) and Special Olympics participants Amy Wollmershauser of Tulsa and Maegan Riddle of Pauls Valley huddle for a group photograph while awaiting a flight to the Special Olympics in Nebraska at Atlantic Aviation at Tulsa International Airport in Tulsa in 2010. JAMES GIBBARD/Tulsa World file