Bill went too far

Competition between disabled, able-bodied bad possibility

Equal access

April 15, 2008

It's a long-held political truism that a legislative body can inflict its worst damage on its citizenry near the close of a session, when passions are high and legislators' attention is scattered toward the twin goals of getting bills passed and getting the heck out of town.

In keeping with that time-honored tradition, the Maryland General Assembly waited until the end of its session last week to pass a bill that has the potential to wreak havoc on high school athletics.

Under the name "Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities," the seemingly innocuous bill passed unanimously. And why not? Providing equity for the disabled is as all-American a concept as waving the flag and marching in the Fourth of July parade.

Left unclear from the bill's passage, however, are the twin questions of how compliance would be effectively measured and whether the bill, if signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, could force competition between able and disabled athletes, an arrangement that would serve neither party well.

Understand this: The bill's overall purpose -- to force school systems to provide athletic opportunities for disabled athletes -- is absolutely the correct one. Once the bill is enacted, schools, under state direction and observation, would have three years starting from July 1 to put into place plans and procedures to give disabled kids the same chances to play as able-bodied kids.

Advocates for the disabled have already hailed the legislation as a boon. Lauren Young, litigation director at the Maryland Disability Law Center, told The Sun's John-John Williams IV last week: "Over time, you will start seeing these programs coming online and developing, and that is the goal. We're really excited about that."

The bill, however, says the state Board of Education and county boards must "ensure" that students with disabilities must be given opportunity to "try out for and, if selected, participate in mainstream athletic programs," opening up a potentially massive can of worms for local coaches and athletic administrators.

Imagine the headache for a coach of a track team, who must allow a wheelchair athlete to participate in a race alongside able-bodied runners who have championship aspirations. Actually, we don't have to imagine, as that scenario played itself out at the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association state track meet two years ago.

Then, Atholton's Alison Smith, who had finished first in the 1,600 meters, was disqualified when a panel ruled that Tatyana McFadden, a wheelchair athlete, had been "pacing" for Smith by riding ahead of her and encouraging and coaching her. The lost points cost the Raiders a chance to repeat as 2A state champions.

McFadden, her mother, Deborah, and advocates for the disabled have lobbied to have McFadden included in events, and, just as importantly, to have whatever points she might score count in her team's total, a quest that privately caused consternation among some of her able-bodied Atholton teammates and would frankly be unworkable at present.

McFadden, who has spina bifida, is a world-class athlete in her wheelchair. She won two medals four years ago in the Paralympics in Athens, Greece, and in virtually any race in a distance beyond a sprint, McFadden is nearly unbeatable against able-bodied runners her age because of the speed she can generate in her chair. Alas, there are few other kids in her situation whom McFadden can compete against.

While it's not the fault of any disabled athlete that a larger pool hasn't been identified or encouraged to participate, forcing able-bodied and disabled athletes to compete against each other, especially at the higher levels of high school competition, is only inviting the kind of debacle that Smith and McFadden endured two years ago.

To their credit, the bill's sponsors did provide an exception for when the inclusion of a student "presents an objective safety risk to the student or to others or fundamentally alters the nature of the school's mainstream physical education or mainstream athletic program."

The bill also cites Allied programs, such as the one operated in Baltimore County in which disabled athletes and able-bodied students can participate, as possible answers to the conundrum of providing sporting chances for disabled students that don't clash with the opportunities of others.

NOTE -- In a column that ran Thursday, the name of Liberty softball catcher Sarah Alpaugh was misstated. I apologize to Sarah and to her family.

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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