Local schools pave way in accommodating disabled athletes

After the whistle, after the first swimmers arced off the diving blocks, the hometown crowd at Weston High School cheered for the teenager in the middle lane: “Otto! Otto!”

Otto Plank, a blond freshman with significant cognitive delays, swam to the end of the pool, where teammates were waiting to cheer him on during his turn for the return length. After he finished his leg of the relay race, the team’s three fastest seniors followed, one by one, and pulled into first place — Otto’s first varsity win.

He had already participated on a town recreation swim team and in the Special Olympics, and he began swimming on the high school team last fall. At the team’s last home meet of the season two weeks ago, coach Claude Valle decided to let Otto start the 200-yard freestyle relay event.

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“He doesn’t really grasp what it all means,” said his mother, Janie Plank. “For him, it means he got to swim with some superstars.”

But for those studying new guidelines from the federal Department of Education that would have public elementary and secondary schools to accommodate students with disabilities who want to play sports, Otto’s place on the swim team shows how it can work.

Valle encouraged Otto, whose condition requires a full-time tutor in school, to join the team. Since Otto could not last through long practices — some swimmers spend 2½ hours in the water, five or six days a week — he would swim for shorter periods. An aide helped him get changed, and explained what he should do during practice.

“I think all kids, no matter what their situation, should have an opportunity to experience all aspects of school life,” Valle said. “It’s part of growing up. It’s part of socialization.”

The Department of Education’s new guidelines say schools must make “reasonable accommodations” — those that do not fundamentally change the sport or give students an unfair advantage — to allow disabled athletes to compete in sports. And for students who can only compete with more significant accommodations, schools must create a separate athletic opportunity, the department said.

“I think this directive could certainly bring sweeping changes in locker rooms for years to come, and, at a minimum, bring these issues to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness and make school districts discuss access in ways that they probably weren’t otherwise,” said Warren Zola, assistant dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management and a professor of sports law.

The guidelines do not set deadlines for schools to comply, Zola noted. Exactly what kinds of accommodations schools must make will likely be determined as courts hear cases about the law, Zola said. “I also understand that there will be backlash, and this will be difficult, and it’s never easy for someone to force an issue to have an opportunity,” he said.

Some schools have already created sports teams for disabled athletes. Algonquin Regional High School and seven other school districts created a new track league last year with teams that include students with intellectual disabilities. The team, which also has students from Westborough High, costs about $5,000 a year — partly covered by a grant — for coaching and transportation and other expenses, said Francis Whitten III, Algonquin’s athletic director. Parents do not pay a fee.

However, additional programs could increase costs at a time when schools are already asking families to pay sports participation fees for their children, said Barry Haley, athletic director at Concord-Carlisle High School.

“It is a challenge in a time when budgets are certainly not increasing, and the demands and costs of running a program are,” he said.

Some analysts have compared the new guidelines to Title IX, the 1972 federal civil rights law that banned gender discrimination in education and supported a sharp increase in women’s sports.

“I’m truly, truly excited,” said Anjali Forber-Pratt, an elite wheelchair racer and Paralympics champion who grew up in Natick. “I think that this is landmark in terms of civil rights for persons with disabilities. It’s a powerful statement to have the backing of the government.”

Forber-Pratt, who graduated from Natick High School in 2002, said there were no opportunities for her, in a wheelchair, to play sports in Natick public schools. Instead, she went to a sports clinic for disabled students at the Massachusetts Hospital School.

When she reached high school, she filed a federal lawsuit against her school district, saying the building was not physically accessible to students with disabilities. As part of a settlement agreement, the district paid her $110,000 and agreed to correct some of the high school’s deficiencies. After that controversy, Forber-Pratt said, she didn’t fight for access to the school’s sports teams.

Instead, she competed nationally in track and downhill skiing competitions for disabled athletes. Still, she said, “I would have loved to have been on my high school track team.”

Natick High, like other schools, is still scrutinizing the new guidelines. Its athletic director, Tim Collins, is meeting on Thursday with his counterparts at the 11 other schools in the Bay State Conference, and they plan to discuss the federal guidelines, he said.

In the 2½ years that Collins has been Natick’s AD, he hasn’t seen disabled students request to join the school’s sports teams, he said.

However, students in the district’s Achieve Program, for physically and cognitively disabled young adults, have often served as managers on the school’s sports teams.

Last fall, a video of Nico Calabria scoring a soccer goal for Concord-Carlisle High raced around the world within hours. It shows Calabria, born with one leg, holding himself aloft with his crutches as his left foot slammed the ball into the net.

But before Calabria became an Internet celebrity, his coaches had to make sure he could legally play high school soccer, since his metal crutches are not standard equipment. The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association approved the forearm crutches for competition, as long as he agreed to wrap them in foam to prevent injuries to other players.

“We wanted to give him an opportunity like everyone else,” said Haley.

The MIAA is sometimes asked to consider cases of disabled students who want to join public school teams. Haley, who also sits on the MIAA’s board of directors, remembers a request from a student who played hockey using a sled — two hockey blades attached to a frame. The MIAA did not allow him to join his high school team.

“That was one that just didn’t work,” Haley said.

The new federal guidelines were announced after a report by the Government Accountability Office found that students with disabilities don’t have the same access as students without disabilities to extracurricular sports in public elementary and secondary schools. The GAO asked the US Department of Education to clarify the legal responsibilities of the schools.

The new guidelines give examples of what might be required. For instance, if a runner with a hearing impairment qualified for the track team, but could not hear the starter’s pistol, the school district would be required to also provide a visual cue at the beginning of races, the department wrote. But schools are not required to make accommodations that would change an essential part of a sport, such as adding an extra base in baseball.

The regulations do not mean sports teams must allow all disabled students to participate; they would be required to try out for the team, and show they are qualified to play.

In Weston, Janie Plank said her son’s place on the team works because Otto wants to swim, and Valle is committed to helping him practice and compete with the team. Her oldest daughter was a diver on the high school team, Plank said, and Valle has known her family for many years.

At least two videos of last month’s swim meet have been posted on YouTube, and around town, people often congratulate Otto for his performance.

“He says to me, ‘Mom, I’m not a celebrity,’ ” said Janie Plank. “I said, ‘No, Otto, you’re just a great swimmer.’ ”