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

02/18/2015 09:08 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

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8-year-old Casey is in many ways like any other boy, especially when it comes to his passion for sports, and particularly competitive swimming. 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. Feel the sense of camaraderie of a team. Experience the pride of physical achievement. Form memories and bonds with his teammates and their families. Cement a strong connection to his community through the vibrant local culture of sports, starting with the neighborhood swim team and graduating all the way to the high school team.

Autism isn't standing in the way of this. Sure, it's a roadblock, but years of occupational therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy and more have given him the motor skills, coordination and focus to begin competing with his peers. That is, if he had been able to start playing sports when they did, way back when they were three.

Now 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 up to this point, 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.

Not Making the Cut

There's no denying that sports are important in our culture. Youth sports plays such a significant role in the community life in my New Jersey suburb, as it does in so many neighborhoods across America, that it's hard to stay in the social loop if you don't participate.

In my town, parents start their children as early as age three with team sports, and families plan their weekends and vacations around their kids' practices and game schedules. By fourth grade, 9- and 10-year-old boys and girls are specializing in particular sports and playing on elite or "travel teams," where they play an average of three times per week. And sometimes they're filling their days off with other sports.

It's hard enough for a typical child to keep up with the hyper-competitive scene that is youth sports today. But if your child has autism, he or she can barely get into the game from the get go. Community leagues simply aren't welcoming enough to kids with autism and other developmental disabilities, even when only slight modifications or support are needed to accommodate them. So parents are forced to create their own solutions if they don't want their children to wither on the sidelines.

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 important 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 than typical kids, 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, autistic kids 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, either intentionally or by default, sets the stage for further segregation, ostracization 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 from which to build opinions based on personal experiences. After years of minimal exposure, autistic kids can more easily be seen as "the other."

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.

Good Laws That Kick in Too Late

While even Casey's mother doesn't think he belongs on a typical swim team right now, she had trouble finding an alternative to the local New Jersey teams that weren't providing the extra support her son needed and the specialty clubs with high barriers to entry. None seemed sensitive toward children with developmental disabilities, even within a state that has the highest rate of autism in the country.

In 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report that found disabled students 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 legal obligations under Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act, which guarantees disabled students equal rights to participate in school sports and other extracurricular activities in public schools.

The federal guidance specified that public school districts must provide disabled students with opportunities to play sports that are equal to those afforded other students. If necessary, "reasonable modifications" should be made to include disabled students, unless such changes would fundamentally alter the game.

Problem solved, right? Not exactly. Since schools can mandate that a specific skill or ability level be met before any student participates in a team sport, children like Casey who weren't included from the start, and lack the years of early training that has become commonplace, often don't have what it takes to make the team.

The Department of Education's guidance states that schools should provide alternative programs in the event that a disabled student cannot participate in a school's existing program. But in practice, since this law doesn't extend beyond the school grounds, it can't reach the children who play sports outside of the school setting.

American schools tend not to offer team sports until the middle school years at the earliest. Before public school team sports kick in, typical children are honing their skills and playing more than ever in their communities. The organizations and town-sponsored recreation leagues that run sports classes and teams for preschool and elementary school aged children, where in this day and age many children get their start, are not subject to Section 504. So by the time Casey gets to middle school, his typical peers will have hundreds of hours of sports training that he missed out on. He doesn't stand a chance.

Last year, New Jersey enacted a bill based on the federal guidance. There is now an even clearer directive for New Jersey school districts to provide equal access to sports for students with disabilities. But even with these added protections, children like Casey will remain boxed out during the crucial early years of preschool and elementary school, exactly when sports participation can forge a path for lifelong physical and social development.

A Team of Their Own

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. Typical kids shouldn't have to be held back in their development or handicap their teams in exchange for welcoming peers with disabilities.

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

While many autistic kids can't participate in sports with typical kids, no matter what well-intentioned efforts may exist, there's something wrong when the number of kids with disabilities on community teams is zero. Given the current reality, families of autistic kids are banding together to form their own teams. I've met some of these families and was so inspired by their determination and personal victories that I began filming their experiences for a documentary film.

The Jersey Hammerheads swim team was formed by an Edison, NJ family that decided to create their own opportunities, and the result has been life-changing for everyone involved. What's stunning to see is the way in which some of the athletes on the team shed the symptoms of their disabilities while swimming. They become no different than typical kids, and sometimes excel even beyond the abilities of their typical peers. 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."

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Home-grown teams like the Jersey Hammerheads and organizations like the 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.

The Legacy Kids Deserve

There is hope. The Special Olympics' Unified Sports program, which is dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition, joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. Inspired by the idea that training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding, Unified Sports now has half a million people worldwide squashing stereotypes about people with disabilities. The program offers a compelling model for the development of inclusion sports programs for younger children.

Community recreation leaders, corporate sponsors and others who organize local leagues: please take note. Find ways to be more inclusive and consider working with the families of children with disabilities to provide more appropriate access. And coaches, I respectfully echo what John O'Sullivan wrote in a recent piece titled The Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports: "You are the gatekeepers of youth sports, the people who play God, and decide who gets in, and who is kicked to the curb. You know the incredible influence of sport in your life, so stop denying it to so many others."

Former NFL football player Joe Ehrmann, now a high school football coach, bestselling author and professional speaker who Parade calls "the most important coach in America," believes that inclusion is not only more important than points on a scoreboard, but also key to a winning team. The principle of inclusion is part of the "transformational coaching" philosophy he teaches other coaches around the country, about "how you can use sports to help boys become men of empathy and integrity who will be responsible for changing the world for good."

Sensitivity towards those with special needs, opening up a dialogue with parents of typical and disabled kids about inclusion, and setting a community example of the benefits to every kid when those with differences are allowed to compete -- all of this is not an impediment to creating a winning team. In fact, it's the height of good sportsmanship, creating a richer experience that helps all athletes in both the game and life. And isn't that one of the best legacies you could hope your child inherits from an experience that will likely not last past high school?

As Sullivan notes, "Your kids do not deserve or need participation medals and trophies... but they do deserve a better, more diverse youth sports experience." In the face of today's competitive, obsessive frenzy that is burning kids out and turning them off from sports at higher rates than ever, O'Sullivan's words ring true: "It is not athletic ability, but the lessons learned from sport that need to last a lifetime."

I applaud the efforts by parents, like those who formed the Jersey Hammerheads, to come together and -- through force of sheer will -- create an athletic experience for their kids that typical families take for granted. By using grassroots techniques and working with generous organizations like the Special Olympics and the YMCA, these families are helping their children reap the benefits of sports, and I have found that the extent of these benefits can be staggering.

But families of kids with disabilities are already overwhelmed with the added burdens of special needs, so it shouldn't be left up to them to create sports teams from scratch. They deserve a wider array of options for their children, whether it's starting with a special needs team offered by the community, possibly graduating to a point where they can join a typical team down the road, or helping their child start with a typical team from the beginning with the help of adaptations offered by supportive coaches.

Beyond the considerations of special needs kids, typical children shouldn't be denied the positive experience of interacting with their peers with disabilities through the language of 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.