Andrew Austen, Whitney Foster and Avery Ingram are different from one another in many ways. They live in different parts of the country, play different high school sports, and maintain different training regimens. They likely have never met one another, but they are joined by a common thread – all three have overcome disabilities to play on teams with their friends and classmates. Participation in sports enriches not only their lives, but also the lives of coaches, teammates and opponents whose respect they have earned for their determination and talent.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education instructed the nation’s public school districts that federal disability law requires them to “provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics.” Directives about equal opportunity for persons with disabilities sometimes produce skeptics, but young athletes like Andrew, Whitney and Avery show that fully integrating many children with disabilities into the mainstream of youth sports is not only good law but also good practice. By overcoming adversity, this trio and other young athletes with disabilities teach the rest of us a thing or two about why mainstreaming marks youth sports at its finest.
Andrew, Whitney and Avery
Fourteen-year-old Andrew Austen is a starting pitcher and centerfielder for the Wayne Wolverines Sandlot American Legion baseball team, a summer basketball star in the Narberth Outdoor League, and a tournament-winning golfer on the St. David’s interclub team. He accomplishes all this even though he was born with a right arm that ends near the elbow. “The kid is an athlete, and he can just flat-out play,” says one of his basketball coaches.
Manual High School senior Whitney Foster was born with arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder that left her with small arms that cannot extend and small hands that cannot grip. But she still competes on her high school’s bowling team. “She balances a 12-pound ball in the crook of her right arm, pressed against her frail biceps and forearm,” describes the Louisville Courier-Journal. “She then takes a few gentle steps before lowering her body and gyrating slightly, as the ball smacks the floor. Although her shots uncoil slowly, they are accurate, most often spinning toward the center pin.” Whitney recently showed her stuff by bowling a 203 game.
Sheldon High School senior Avery Ingram recently completed his four-year varsity wrestling career with more than 20 victories, including four at a tournament in Grants Pass. He has been totally blind since removal of an eye tumor when he was two years old.
The Education Department’s Directive
The nation’s newspapers regularly report inspiring stories about young athletes who refuse to let disabilities define who they are. As I reviewed recent stories for this article, they described young athletes who might have been needlessly shunted to the sidelines except for personal perseverance, and for the unwavering support of their parents, coaches and teammates.
I chose to write about Andrew, Whitney and Avery because their stories are so timely. On January 25, the U.S. Department of Education reminded public school districts that federal disability law requires them to “provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that public schools “may not exclude students who have an intellectual, developmental, physical, or any other disability from trying out and playing on a team, if they are otherwise qualified.” “While it’s the coach’s job to pick the best team, students with disabilities must be judged based on their individual abilities, and not excluded because of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes.”
“[S]chools don’t have to change the essential rules of the game,” Secretary Duncan explained, “and they don’t have to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage. But they do need to make reasonable modifications (such as using a laser instead of a starter pistol to start a race so a deaf runner can compete) to insure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else.”
Good for Young Athletes and Good for America
The Education Department’s authority reaches only the nation’s public schools, but equal opportunity should also motivate private youth sports programs that federal disability law does not directly reach. For children with disabilities, the rewards of participation in sports remain constant in public schools and private programs alike. Andrew Austen, Whitney Foster and Avery Ingram each played community youth sports before moving on to high school competition.
To the maximum extent possible, leagues and teams should permit children with disabilities to participate in sports with other children if their parents approve, their abilities permit, and participation does not change the character of the game or compromise other players’ safety. Worthwhile programs, such as Little League’s Challenger Division, serve children whose conditions make integrated play inadvisable or impossible.Andrew Austen, Whitney Foster and Avery Ingram demonstrate why young athletes with disabilities deserve a fair chance to play in accordance with their abilities, desires, and willingness to contribute to the team. Sports teaches children with disabilities plenty, but these children also teach everyone else plenty through their determination to overcome barriers that teammates and their families previously never thought much about. We are all better for the lessons.
Sources: Molly Eichel, "Radnor’s Andrew Austen Plays Golf, Basketball and Baseball. With One Hand.And He’s Just Fine With That." Philadelphia Daily News, July 16, 2012; Andrew Himmelsbach, "A Sport Right Up Her Alley" Journal-Courier (Louisville, Ky.), Jan 19, 2013, p. A1; Steve Mims, "Blind Wrestler a Student of the Sport," Register-Guard (Eugene. Or.), Feb. 5, 2013; U.S. Dep’t of Education, Arne Duncan, We Must Provide Equal Opportunity in Sports to Students with Disabilities (Jan. 25, 2013).