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Federal law requires a level playing field for disabled student athletes

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Rio Mesa High School junior Devin Williams has succeeded at high school sports despite being hard of hearing. © Richard Gillard/Acorn Newspapers
Watch football and baseball player Devin Williams make a tackle or tag a runner out at first base, and it’s tough to tell the 16-year-old Rio Mesa High School athlete is any different from the other boys on the field.

The only giveaway that the athlete is severely hard of hearing is the presence of a sign-language interpreter who translates coaches’ instructions for Devin at practices and games.

Devin was diagnosed with hearing loss at the age of 3 and wears hearing aids.

The Camarillo resident uses the hearing aids during baseball games, allowing him to hear most calls, but he takes them out during football games because he has to wear a helmet.

This leaves the Spartans’ nose guard in a soundless haze.

Rio Mesa makes accommodations for Devin’s disability by paying a sign language instructor to help him during school hours, practice and games.

Although the extra resources are available at Rio Mesa High School—a magnet school for Oxnard Union High School District’s hard-of-hearing students— there are many high schools across the U.S. that don’t do enough to accommodate disabled student athletes.

In January, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights sent a letter to high schools nationwide to remind administrators of their duty to help disabled students participate in sports programs.

The letter was in response to a 2010 government report that found disabled students did not participate in sports or afterschool activities at the same rates as their peers. Some disabled students, including those with conditions that would not affect their athletic abilities, such as dyslexia and autism, were 56 percent less likely to play sports.

The letter stated that disabled high school students “must be provided an equal opportunity to participate in athletics, including intercollegiate, club and intramural athletics,” according to Seth Galanter, an assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education.

Students with disabilities should not be disqualified from trying out for a sports team, the letter said. In addition, if the student makes the team, the coach’s decision on whether the student plays should be based on the same criteria the coach uses for all other players.

The civil rights office also reminded school officials and coaches that reasonable modifi- cations to games should be made for disabled players. For example, deaf track runners should be given a hand signal at the start of a race and one-handed swimmers shouldn’t be required to follow the two-touch rule in swim meets.

Some school officials argue that the federal mandate goes too far in its requirement that schools create entire teams devoted to disabled students.

But Bill Dabs, an assistant superintendent with the Oxnard Union, said even though the law is written to require schools to create sports for disabled students, it’s unlikely such a large number of the district’s disabled students would come forward to form a new team.

Dabs is an executive board member of the California Interscholastic Federation, the Sacramento based governing body for high school athletics in the state, and said CIF is working to ensure California schools comply with federal law. The first order of business for school districts is to survey how many disabled students would be interested in playing sports.

“We don’t have those numbers and that’s part of the discussion,” Dabs said.

If there are enough interested students, athletic departments must discuss appropriate accommodations. If modifications can’t be made for those students, school districts must create intramural leagues, such as a wheelchair basketball league or a swimming team for the blind.

The difficulty, said athletic director of Rio Mesa High School Brian FitzGerald, is how school districts would form those leagues based on various disabilities.

“We have plenty of kids labeled as disabled that are playing sports but special education runs the gamut from kids with learning disabilities to physical disabilities to more severe types of mental disabilities,” he said. “We’re all asking the Office of Civil Rights the same questions. How do we interpret (the letter)? How do we put it into place and then how do we fund it?”

FitzGerald said Rio Mesa is already in partial compliance because it has made modifications for the school’s large deaf student population.

Those modifications are relatively low-cost, but critics argue that creating entirely new leagues for disabled athletes could cost school districts across the nation money they don’t have.

Dabs said it’s “completely insensitive” of school districts to use the excuse of additional costs to skirt the law.

“There are going to be some costs, but I don’t anticipate it’s going to be a huge cost,” Dabs said. “There could be districtwide teams, and instead of six schools paying for each coach, there could be one coach for the entire district.”

The district would also have to pay for more interpreters, specialneeds professionals and medical staff if necessary.

“I understand how other parents may say, ‘Oh, the costs,’ but I would hope that all parents would always want the best education for their child whether they have a disability or not,” said Cindy De Jesus, Devin’s mom.

De Jesus said sports has helped boost her son’s social skills and interest in school. Football is the main reason he wants to go to college.

“My dream is I want to play (football) for USC,” Devin said. “I can’t imagine life without football.”

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