Why Schools Need Better Options for Athletes With Disabilities Like My Son


Today my son started his first day of summer vacation. He is now technically a seventh-grader, which made me realize I need to not only think about high schools, but start making appointments to tour them and speak to the staff about whether or not the school will be a good fit for him. My son has spina bifida and is a full-time wheelchair user. In the past, we have concentrated on the basics, such as whether or not the school is ADA compliant, what the best time for bathroom breaks are, etc. Now that my son is older and involved in sports, I am starting to add the question of whether or not he can join the school teams for swimming and track and field, both of which are individual sports.

I looked up my state’s high school sports association website to read up on their policy towards adaptive athletics. It was fairly standard, and then I saw the one sentence that put me over the edge:

“…some students with disabilities, like some students without disabilities, will be unable to participate in adapted athletics due to the competitive nature of the programs and for reasons unrelated to their disability. Like other students who do not “make the team”, these students should be directed to alternative programs which are less competitive and more recreational in nature.”

What?

I understand my son would not make the football team or the baseball team. Or if he was able to join one of the teams of the sports he is currently in outside of the school program, he would likely not see much action. He can’t compete as well as an able-bodied athlete. I get that. We all know the importance in society of the successful sports team. I am happy when the team is inclusive, but look for alternatives when it is not. Additionally, my son competes on a national level and in order to qualify for the annual championship games, he must have qualifying times from a sanctioned organization. Which is not usually an issue in a metropolitan area, but what happens to the kids who live in areas where adaptive meets are few and far between or do not have the money to spend on hotels and travels for meets far from home?

And to find a “less competitive and more recreational in nature” alternative? Really? Maybe just a poor choice of words, but they hit this mama hard.

I want my kid to be competitive. Life is competitive. I want him to know what he can achieve by working hard. I want him to know the disappointment of defeat to prepare him for adulting. I am fortunate that we have access to a strong adaptive sports organization so that my son can compete, that he can strive to be better in his sport. That life is about working towards goals.

If these kids with physical disabilities never were competitive, there would not be a Paralympics organization for starters. Ever heard of that organization? Ever watched the Paralympic games? Those athletes are not recreational ones. They are are competitive and as hard working as any you will find. As I mentioned earlier, even the adaptive sports competitions have qualifying standards. My son’s swim season runs for nine months where we give up weekends for training.

This statement from the state’s high school sports association basically gives people the OK to not rise above mediocrity. It’s a patronizing pat on the head. I hope others parents realize that their children, while perhaps not able to play or compete because of their disability, are capable of so much more than we sometimes give them credit for. Whether or not a child needs more or less competition should not be dependent on their disability. It should depend on the individual. Give these children an environment to flourish, and sit back and see what happens.

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