Children with Disabilities Missing on America's Playgrounds
|James H. Rimmer, Ph.D., Director|
I experienced this weekly ritual for 16 years with both my daughters. Fall was the most enjoyable season. On crisp autumn days in late September and October, the soccer fields were filled with children chasing after black-and-white-checkered balls. Winter months were spent in indoor soccer and basketball, and spring and summer were reserved for softball. In each of those 16 years, never once did either of my daughters have a teammate with a disability.
Those of us who have been in the field of physical education, exercise science, and sports for many years and have coached children know why: Too many people feel that sports are only for those who have enough talent to keep up with their peers, or at the very least, not stand out from the rest of the team. If you can't run very fast, catch or kick the ball in the same manner as the rest of the team, or stop your opponent from making a basket, you're out. "Go find something else to do" is the subliminal message heard by parents of children with disabilities.
Children with disabilities are not provided the same opportunities to participate in integrated sports programs as their non-disabled peers. If they're lucky, they might have an adapted sports program in their neighborhood. While these adapted programs are highly valued from the standpoint of providing quality, individualized instruction, they usually occur in non-integrated settings and should be an adjunct to community sports programs rather than a replacement. Excuses that wheelchairs present a risk of injury to the other players on the team or that the child does not have enough skill or cognition to keep up with the other players are pure nonsense. Professionals in therapeutic recreation and adapted physical activity have devoted their careers to developing strategies for making sports more inclusive for children with disabilities, and in the age of technology, there will continue to be more and more innovative ways to equalize competition.
The firestorm surrounding the University of Colorado football team scandal for the past month has epitomized the problem with sports: the belief that winning is everything. The comment made by the Colorado football coach concerning the young woman who accused one of her teammates of sexually assaulting her - "Katie was a terrible player; she couldn't put the ball through the uprights"- is a reflection of all that is wrong with sports. Rather than focus on the horrific accusation of rape, he chose to focus on her playing ability and, when given the opportunity by one reporter to respond to her athletic skills, shifted the attention to her allegedly poor playing ability rather than the more critical issue at hand.
Many parents and coaches who are involved with youth sports feel the same way: "If you're not a good player, you shouldn't be playing on the same team with my son or daughter." You would think that this would only hold true for elite sports at the higher level of competition. But think again. Impressions of "elitism" displayed openly by coaches in college and professional sports sadly trickle down to the playing fields of America. Parent coaches often emulate professional and college coaches and do whatever is necessary to win, when all children really want to do is go out and have some fun.
With a few minor rule changes and adaptations, the goal of having fun could be attained by every child with and without a disability. Sports for children should mean sports for ALL children, with no footnotes attached. We must begin to remind communities that the primary emphasis of community recreational sports is for children to have fun, socialize, and get some exercise. Children with higher levels of ability will get their chance to compete with other elite athletes on traveling teams and in junior high and high school athletics. So let's leave Saturday mornings to every child in America playing with every other child, and for families to build friendships with other families while their children participate in one of life's greatest enjoyments - recreational sports. This is a fitting place for the President's slogan -- No Child Left Behind - with a slight modification: No child Left Behind on Saturday Mornings!