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Why We All Lose When Kids With Disabilities Are Shut Out of Sports

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Eight-year-old Casey is in many ways like any other boy, especially when it comes to his passion for sports. But he has a problem that affects us all.

Casey is autistic. That isn’t the problem. 

Casey would be thrilled if he could swim in a relay race with his peers and feel the sense of camaraderie of a team. Autism isn’t standing in the way of this. Sure, it’s potentially a roadblock, but years of various therapies have given him the motor skills, coordination and focus to begin competing with his peers. That is, if he’d been able to start playing sports when they did, way back when they were 3 years old.

At this point, it doesn’t matter what sorts of laws exist to demand equal opportunity for kids with disabilities in school sports. Casey is so far behind typical kids in his access to athletics that he’s missed out on all of the developmental and social benefits he could have been gaining, and he won’t have a prayer of making any school team when they start in middle school.

This isn’t just a squandered opportunity for Casey. It’s a loss for the entire community.

I believe sports are important in our culture. Youth sports play a significant role in the community life of my neighborhood; it’s hard to stay in  the social loop if you don’t participate. Whether you believe that the increasingly ramped-up intensity and competition for young kids in sports are a good thing or not, we can all recognize that playing sports provides a host of benefits for our bodies and minds, from exercise to community engagement to the development of social skills, self-esteem, teamwork and leadership. Children like Casey often gain even more from sports, as they tend to be more deficient in the skills that sports enhances. As their peers grow stronger and more confident from their participation in sports, kids with autism can fall further behind, so the social and physical gaps between them and typical peers grow even wider. Their exclusion from community sports and the associated social activities that surround sports, sets the stage for further segregation and isolation.

This isn’t just damaging to the children who are left out. When typical children are denied exposure to children with differences, they lose the opportunity to learn important life lessons, like how to accept people who may not look or act like you do. These are harder concepts to teach when kids are older, after the clay has hardened and there has been little interaction.

And of course it’s not just the children with disabilities who become isolated. Their families grow increasingly separated from the community, with fewer common activities and occasions to interact.

In 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report that found students with disabilities participated in sports “at consistently lower rates than students without disabilities.” Subsequently, the U.S. Department of Education issued a letter of guidance to school districts nationwide clarifying their obligations under federal civil rights law to guarantee students with disabilities equal rights to participate in school sports and other extracurricular activities in public schools.

Problem solved, right? Not exactly. The organizations and town-sponsored recreation leagues that run sports classes and teams for preschool and elementary school-aged children, where many children get their start, are not subject to these laws. So by the time Casey gets to middle school, when competitive teams begin, his typical peers will have hundreds of hours of sports training that he missed out on.

No one is asking community sports organizations to fundamentally alter the tenor of their teams to accommodate kids who might need a lot of special help getting out of the starting block.

But there’s a middle ground between political correctness run amok and total exclusivity.

Given the current reality, families of kids with autism are banding together to form their own teams. I’ve met some of these families and was so inspired by their determination that I began filming their experiences for a documentary film.

The Jersey Hammerheads swim team was formed by a family from Edison, New Jersey, that decided to create their own opportunities, and the result has been life-changing for everyone involved. Two boys on the team are now swimming with their local YMCA’s team, two more swim for their high school teams and one swims with an elite private swim club that boasts Rebecca Soni as an alumna. The experience is revelatory for both the children on the team, which includes Casey, and their parents.

“We didn’t realize how important sports could be in our son’s life,” one mother told me. “His capability and success have changed my whole outlook on what’s possible for his future.” She now believes that as a result of his success in sports, and especially swimming, college is within reach for her son. “If he can learn this, he can learn other things too.”

Homegrown teams like the Jersey Hammerheads and organizations like Special Olympics can serve as a springboard for inclusion of athletes with disabilities onto typical teams. They’re a great place to start for the child who needs to learn at his own pace in a supportive environment.

But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be more and earlier on-ramps to community teams for kids who require support to play with their typical peers or that the community should be exempt from creating alternate teams for kids who need their own space to learn. Families of kids with disabilities are already overwhelmed. They deserve a wider array of support, and it shouldn’t be left up to them to create sports teams from scratch.

Beyond the considerations of kids with special needs, typical children shouldn’t be denied the positive experience of interacting with their peers with disabilities through sports — especially when they’ll find that on the field, on the court or in the pool, they have more in common than not.

When every child is shown early on that inclusiveness is a paramount value to strive for, we all win.

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Originally published: March 26, 2015
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