Friday, August 01, 2008

A Title IX for Disabled Athletes?

In July, political efforts to enhance opportunities for disabled student-athletes reached two noteworthy milestones.

First, a law in Maryland requiring schools to provide equal access to sports and physical education classes to disabled athletes -- the first of its kind -- went into effect. The Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act gives Maryland schools three years to figure out ways to ensure participation opportunities for athletes like Tatyana McFadden, a wheelchair athlete who became the issue's public face after she sued for the right to participate in on her high school's track & field team, as well as to make equipment and facilities accessible. The only limitation on schools' obligation applies when inclusion "presents an objective safety risk" to the student or others or "fundamentally alters the nature" of the class or athletic programs. Advocates of the new legislation, including McFadden's mother, are calling the law the Title IX for disabled athletes. And, it seems, the opposition to the law will also strike a chord familiar to Title IX advocates, as some are concerned that the inclusion mandate could dilute the opportunities for 'real' athletes (those with "championship aspirations" in the words of this columnist).

After Maryland's law, the second milestone in the area of disability rights occurred when both houses of Congress held briefings on whether a law like Maryland's should apply on the national level. Aimee Mullins, president of the Women's Sports Foundation, analogized the likely effect of such a law to that of Title IX, testifying that "a similar law for the disabled could have the same impact." Advocates acknowledge that their political efforts are only at the "starting point" but suggest that a good first step would be for the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study of discrimination against disabled athletes in phys ed and scholastic sports -- something that the office routinely does in the area of gender.