Recently, the U.S. Department of Education ordered school districts to give disabled students equal access to extracurricular sports participation. Advocates for the disabled have praised the order, which states that schools must provide “reasonable modifications” to allow disabled students to participate.
Fairmont Boys’ Track Head Coach Stephen McDonald fully supports the order, which he sees as opening doors for disabled students.
“I think it’s great that more student athletes will be able to participate in sports and learn the invaluable lessons that they teach you,” he said. “Really, the more students, the better.”
Wrestling Head Coach Frank Baxter agrees with McDonald’s sentiment.
“It’s the law, and we’re going to provide the opportunities to the athletes it applies to. Bottom line, we’re in the business of working with student athletes to be the best they can be.”
The Toledo Blade reported that the Ohio High School Athletic Association says it already complies with the federal directive, which is a clarification of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The OHSAA also noted the state track and field championships in June will include wheelchair events.
Some may question if issues may arise because some athletes are perceived as getting special treatment. Baxter, however, doesn’t feel that treating students with different needs in different ways is an issue.
“In some cases, special treatment can be detrimental, but in most, I don’t think it is,” said Baxter. “The old saying to ‘treat everyone the same’ is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. We hold our kids to very high standards, and the ones that live up to that or try to are the ones that I call my favorites.”
Baxter further has only positive things to say about the government’s order, but with a caveat. “Our goal in education is to provide opportunity and get our athletes and students to grow as people,” he said. “That being said, I am keenly aware of some of the unintended consequences of government mandates. At this point, we just don’t know what those consequences could be. We’re just going to help our kids out now and evaluate the situation as we go.”
The government’s order doesn’t guarantee a student with a disability a spot on an athletic team for which other students must try out. In addition, the order notes that if the modifications provided would give the student an advantage or fundamentally alter a sport, then schools must create parallel athletic programs comparable to traditional sports programs.
Fairmont Athletic Director Chris Weaver doesn’t feel the new directive will cause problems for Fairmont. “The information is still coming out, and there’s a lot of questions as to what exactly qualifies as a disability,” he said. “But in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve found that Fairmont is very accepting of any student to participate in any program. I don’t see us needing to make any huge, drastic changes to what we already do.”
McDonald agrees with Weaver, noting only that safety is an issue to be aware of.
“Other than safety reasons – making sure that the track and wheelchair surfaces work well, there shouldn’t be a problem,” said McDonald. “I believe the legislation also says that a wheelchair participant and a non-disabled athlete can’t compete in the same event, for the same safety issues.”
Federal order or not, Weaver is confident in not only Fairmont’s ability to adapt, but students’ adaptability as well.
“If a student walks into our office, and says, ‘Hey, I want to participate. I have the academic requirements to do so, and I believe that I have the physical ability to compete,’ then as we’ve done in the past, we’ll try our best to accomplish that,” Weaver said.
In fact, Fairmont is already accommodating at least one athlete. Every time he steps on the mat, senior wrestler Drew Plumlee grapples with two opponents: another wrestler and a visual impairment. Plumlee’s impairment comes from a deficiency in his visual cones, which doesn’t allow him to process things he sees as quickly as his opponents do.
“It was a bit difficult to overcome at first, but not so much now,” he said. “I start my matches in contact with my opponent, so that’s helped to make things easier for me. Really, though, it’s the support of my coaches and parents that have been the biggest factor.”
The start in contact is a rule of the Ohio High School Athletic Association that allows visually impaired wrestlers to start their bouts with touch. Baxter, Plumlee’s coach, encouraged him to make use of the rule.
“He didn’t want any special treatment to start,” Baxter said. “After our discussions with Drew, though, we decided that it would be in his best interest. Really, I feel like any special treatment he gets is in spite of his visual impairment, rather than because of it.”
Plumlee confirms he was initially reluctant to use the rule, but he warmed to the idea in his sophomore year. “I didn’t really have any interest,” he said. “But after talking with Coach Baxter, I decided about halfway through sophomore year that it would be a good idea.”
With the high standards that Baxter and the Athletic Department ask their students to live up to, Plumlee looks beyond his disability and just tries to be the best he can be.
“The bottom line for me is that you can’t use your disability as a why-or-why-not excuse,” he said. “As long as you give your best and try your hardest, you can accomplish anything.”