By Ken Reed

Pete Benda, a product tester for Daddies Board Shop has put together an excellent resource for athletes with disabilities. It highlights numerous opportunities for disabled athletes, in a variety of sports, and provides links to a plethora of educational and informational articles.

“Whether you were born with a disability or received it after an injury, it should never prevent you from enjoying life and the excitement of sports,” writes Benda.

“Sports don’t just benefit your health; those who participate on a team, or individual sports, experience better self-esteem, and when a survey was completed for those who participated in Disabled Sports USA programs, the results were astounding. Simply being a part of something may give you a better chance of staying physically active, feeling more fulfilled, socializing more, and create a more positive outlook on life. With the constant advances in technology and equipment, there are many opportunities for those with disabilities to get involved with sports, including snowboarding, skiing, sled hockey, and many more.

“From soccer and basketball to more extreme sports, like snowboarding, skiing, and dirt biking, there is something to fit everyone’s style. You don’t have to climb up the cliff of a steep mountain, although it is possible, in order to enjoy adaptive sports. Some like more calming low-risk sports, while others starve for the thrill of adventure. Whether it is a risky sport or not, competing will get your blood-pumping as you attain new goals, score points, and battle for the win.”

People like Benda are helping disabled athletes find more opportunities to participate in sports. It’s an effort that needs a lot more activists. More than 50 million people in the United States have documented disabilities. And these disabled Americans aren’t getting anywhere near the same amount of athletic opportunities as their fellow Americans who don’t have disabilities.

This fact has many negative ramifications. For example:

· 56% of people with disabilities don’t engage in any physical activity. That impairs their physical, mental and emotional health.

· Neither the NCAA or National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations officially authorize any athletics programs for individuals with disabilities.

· The disabled female athlete faces an even tougher situation: Throughout all levels of sport, women with disabilities are not getting as many opportunities as men with disabilities.

Disabled athletes, most notably in our high schools and colleges, have been pushed to the side, segregated from other athletes, and denied opportunities afforded their classmates, solely on the basis of their disabilities. Incidents of discrimination against disabled athletes have been part of an overarching culture of exclusion and discrimination against individuals with disabilities for far too long.

That said, there have been some positive advancements for disabled athletes in recent years. For example, in 2008, Maryland passed the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act. It has been called a “landmark piece of legislation regarding the inclusion of individuals with disabilities in physical education and athletic programs.” The Maryland legislation sets a standard for the rest of the country and is a major step toward providing equal opportunity in athletics for Americans with disabilities.

In January, 2013, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” clarifying schools’ obligations to provide extracurricular athletics opportunities for students with disabilities under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The directive applies to K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities. The bottom line of the OCR action is that students with disabilities must be provided opportunities for physical activity and sports equal to those afforded to students without disabilities.

In a press release about the OCR’s action, issued by the Inclusive Fitness Coalition, an advocacy organization for disabled athletes, James Rimmer, Ph.D., director of the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability said, “The OCR guidance is a clear indication that athletics is an extremely important part of our educational system and that youth and young adults with disabilities must be afforded the same opportunities as their non-disabled peers.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has called on the Department of Education to provide resources to assist states and schools in serving students with disabilities in physical activity settings.

“We applaud OCR for its leadership and action, which we hope will pave the way for students with disabilities in sports the same way that Title IX has done for women,” said Terri Lakowski, policy chair of the Inclusive Fitness Coalition.

Of course, it takes more than legislation to make a difference in the lives of disabled athletes. The action taken by the OCR and GAO is a positive for disabled athletes in the United States but now comes the hard part: enforcing implementation of this mandate.

As has been the case in the quest for gender equity in sports through Title IX, hundreds of sports activists who are focused on improving the plight of disabled athletes are needed. Everyone who cares about equal opportunity in sports must be diligent at the local and/or national level.

Beverly Vaughn, Executive Director of the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs adds:

“We are ready and eager to work with schools across the country and show them that integrating students with disabilities into school athletic programs is not only feasible, but will greatly enrich the overall athletic experience for all students.”

Skiing filmmaker Kurt Miller (son of famous film director Warren Miller) is one such activist. He devotes a lot of his filmmaking and marketing skills to helping disabled people discover the joy of skiing and becoming active in sports. He has created a non-profit called Make A Hero that collects and distributes donations for the purpose of making sports more accessible to disabled individuals. He also created a documentary film called “The Movement” about five disabled skiers in order to stimulate fundraising.

“My job is to build awareness that the need is out there, to educate people to what it means to be disabled, to raise money, and help,” says Miller.

A lot of work has been done.
 A lot is still left to do.
 Get involved where you can. Just like Pete Benda has done.

(Note: For additional information on adaptive sports, see League of Fans’ “Sports Programs for People With Disabilities“)

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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