Adapted Sports in the Public School System

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A 2010 study compiled by the US Government Accountability Office found that although the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, mandates full participation, 12 percent of students with disabilities in grades seven to 12 did not take traditional physical education classes. The push for inclusion in school sports couldn’t come at a better time. The American Association of Adapted Sports Program, or AAASP, is changing the tide, one school system at a time.

About adapted sports

Suiting up for a favorite sport is one of the hallmarks of childhood.

Playing a sport is a chance to join the camaraderie and to practice a shared love, not to mention hone the ability to work as part of a team, and of course, have fun.

Too often, children with disabilities are forced to the sidelines when it comes to school sports. Schools may not have the necessary to equipment to ensure a child with disabilities can participate safely, or, the teacher may not be sure how a child with disabilities can participate. For the children that find themselves as perpetual spectators, the feeling is one of exclusion.

This year, however, proponents of adapted sports picked up an important ally. The administration of US President Barack Obama for the first time has specifically informed public school systems that they must make reasonable accommodations to give students with disabilities equal access to sports programs.

The move is seen as a crucial step in complying with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a provision that mandates the inclusion of people with disabilities in activities that receive federal funding.

For several years, the Atlanta-based American Association of Adapted Sports Programs, or AAASP, has advocated strongly for inclusion of young people with physical challenges in sports programs. The US government now considers the organization’s work to be a national model to implementing adapted sports in public schools; a model of inclusion on football fields, baseball diamonds, and hard courts, for starters.

The push for inclusion in school sports couldn’t come at a better time. A 2010 study compiled by the US Government Accountability Office found that although the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, mandates full participation, 12 percent of students with disabilities in grades seven to 12 did not take traditional physical education classes.

On the upside, the study further showed that schools using new ways to include students in PE activities. But nationally, only 11 percent of students with disabilities in schools assessed within the study participated in fully-Adaptive PE in 2000 and 2001.

The level of changes over the last decade is difficult to assess, but during the next several years, the environment is likely to change because of the Obama administration order. Although the speed of such change will be difficult to determine, what is clear is that the AAASP will play an important role in making sure everyone, no matter what their physical condition can play ball.

Making a goal

The AAASP was founded in 1996 in Atlanta. It’s mission is to develop and supports a standardized structure for school-based athletic competition for students with disabilities. Their success has come to serve as a benchmark to other programs outside of Georgia.

AAASP estimates indicate that more than 4,000 students with 35 different types of disabilities have participated in its adaptive programs. Since its inception, the AAASP has organized 1,445 inter-scholastic sporting events in Georgia.

The students, whom have developmental and physical disabilities, are able to take part in the sports programs by using assistive equipment. Sometimes, game rules are changed to mimic adult disability sport rules to accommodate children and to preserve the spirit of competition. Other times, new sports have been developed by the AAASP to give kids more options.

Additionally, the AAASP has been able to organize statewide sports competitions, and provides shared services to schools to help make the cost of adaptive sports more palatable for public districts. The organization also helps local coaches develop and maintain their own programs through mentorship and support.

Today, the AAASP is working with organizations in Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Texas to develop athletic programs for children with disabilities.

Celebrating a home run

AAASP sporting events run in seasons, just like school sports for other children. Although the students are participating in an athletic event, the true value of sportsmanship is the ability to compete, play, socialize and conquer to their highest physical abilities in a sport that is physical.

I’ve watched my son grow and play and I know these kids can do the same and they just need a chance to do it. So I found the opportunity to give them the chance and coach them to play to their highest abilities and they are doing it,” Mark Miller, Dekalb County School Soccer, Basketball, Handball and Football Coach. Miller first learned about adapted sports from a student that invited him to his after-school adapted sporting event. When he went, he knew he wanted to coach adapted sports. “It teaches the kids independence. You have to be able to run routes. You have to be able to listen. You have to be able to visualize…”

Believing that what is learned in athletics carries over to other aspects of a child’s life, the AAASP coaches feel they are developing character, integrity, honesty, and the instilling the belief that the child can be the best they can be. The program is structured to build the child’s confidence and carry the result onto the court.

Wheelchair basketball

Among the sports that AAASP has adapted include wheelchair basketball, which is considered the most popular of all adapted sports among young people with disabilities. How the game is played is universal; all players must play in a wheelchair even if he or she can walk. Players play in manual chairs, not power chairs.

“We often use wheelchairs because it gives us a level playing field. Do we absolutely have to use wheelchairs? Absolutely not,” said Scot Hollonbeck, AAASP’s Director of Partnerships and Outreach. “Only about 40% of our kids do use a wheelchair for day-to-day.”

Players compete in either junior varsity or varsity divisions; the JV teams use an eight and a half-foot basket and the varsity players use a 10-foot hoop. The playing season takes place in the winter and concludes with a state championship for each division.

Wheelchair football

Wheelchair football is a sport that is most often played by athletes in peak physical condition. It is played on a basketball court; players can use either power or manual chairs. Players are considered tackled by an opponent when the opponent is tagged. A team has six attempts to score once they receive the ball; they can pass the ball into the end zone. Field goals and kick-offs are thrown. Scoring is the same as it is for conventional football.

Wheelchair handball

Wheelchair handball is a sport that was created specifically for people in wheelchairs. It is a fast-paced game that students can play in a manual or power wheelchair. The ball is a white volleyball, which is easier for children to see and to handle. The game is played, once again, on the hard court.

The game, which is similar to soccer, employs some of the same concepts as wheelchair basketball, like dribbling and picking up the ball as it moves. However, the player must move the ball using his or her body, or the wheelchair.

Track and field

Other students with disabilities can take part in track and field programs that allow them to participate on their school’s team.

It’s important to remember that disability athletics is similar to conventional athletics in that no child is guaranteed a spot on an athletic team. But AAASP coaches work with kids to help them determine what sports they enjoy, and how to develop their skills.

Crossing the finish line

A parent may ask, “What will my child get out of playing sports that they would not get out of another activity, like playing games or arts-related activities?”

That answer is both easy and complex. Children with disabilities are first and foremost children, and they have a built-in need for recreation, bonding with other young people, and feeling they are an active part of the action. Sports can play a powerful role in meeting these goals.

The other reason sports are good for children with disabilities is the same reason they are good for other children – competition gives kids a sense of accomplishment, which serves as a powerful pathway to self-esteem.

One big plus parents will find as they navigate adaptive sports programs is that their child will be able to meet, and befriend, other children that might be facing the same challenges as they are. The skills that a child learns playing a sport are easily transferable to the family. That means a friendly game of pick-up football that involves the entire family can also include a child with disabilities, which means a child will have another opportunity to quality recreational time with mom and dad, with his or her siblings, and with the neighborhood friends.

It’s important to remember that sports, since the beginning of time, has been a past time that has enthralled people, whether they play, or watch. When a child wants to play, they should be able to do so. Organizations like the AAASP make it possible for all children, no matter what their physical condition is, to cross the finish line.

What can parents do if their child’s school district is not providing equal opportunity and participation in athletics for their child with special needs?

If you believe your school is not living up to its potential, or you would like to work with your school to develop a program for inclusion that coincides with the Obama Administration’s mandate, we encourage you to download the following materials and open a dialogue with your school athletic department, the district administrators, and the school board.

These materials will help acquaint the parties with the federal guidelines, and the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines, as well as introduce them to an Atlanta school district that is being touted as one of the nation’s leading models.

Helpful articles, include:

The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s report “Students with Disabilities: More Information and Guidance Could Improve Opportunities in Physical Education and Athletics”

The Washington Times story, “White House Requires school athletics for disabled”

The U.S. Department of Education’s Department of Civil Rights’ statement “Schools’ Obligation to Provide Equal Opportunity to Students with Disabilities to Participate in Extracurricular Athletics”

Information on the American Association of Adapted Sports Program

For more information on AAASP, visit: AAASP Website.

For a AAASP brochure, visit: AAASP Brochure.

For a video on AAASP, visit: AAASP Program Video.

For more information on the GAO study, visit: Students with Disabilities: More Information and Guidance Could Improve Opportunities in Physical Education and Athletics,, Report to Congressional Requesters, United States Government Accountability Office, GAO-10-519, June 23, 2010.

Special Education

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Special Education

Every child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Some children require aids and supports. Parents are urged to research and meet with educators in the public and private sectors to decide the appropriate education path to meet their child’s needs.
Special Education