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 Barry Haley, Concord-Carlisle athletic director.
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.