A day after the federal government’s mandate that all school districts either include students with disabilities into existing sports programs or provide them with equal opportunities, Tampa Bay area school administrators and coaches seemed optimistic that they would have little to no issues with compliance.
“Right now in Pinellas County we have, for example, some deaf students playing various sports,” Pinellas County athletic director Nick Grasso said. “We currently work with those schools to make sure those students have what they need, like interpreters. I’ll talk with the officials associations to make sure they know the situation and give them some leeway. …
“But I’m not sure about it how it will work going forward. I’ll have to hear from the (Florida High School Athletic Association).’’
Grasso added that he has never received complaints, from parents or schools, regarding inequalities in athletic opportunities.
FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing said in a statement Friday that Florida has always been ahead of the curve on this issue.
“In the past few years we have added some adaptive sports to the athletic activities offered at member schools…” he said.
“Wherever and whenever possible, we want every student to have the opportunity to be a part of the team, because providing access to athletic programs for students with disabilities certainly adds value to their overall educational experience. If this new guidance helps just one more student become a student-athlete, it will be worth the effort.”
The FHSAA has extensive rules and stipulations in place for adaptive track: the 200- and 800-meter races and the shot put. In the shot put, for example, there are two classes, accommodating competitors who might have different limits based on the upper or lower parts of their bodies.
Some schools have been modifying their programs for years to accommodate student-athletes with special needs. Land O’Lakes High, for example, has had deaf athletes compete in football and baseball, and used coaches who know sign language when necessary.
“There are a lot of students with disabilities that are involved in athletics,” Land O’Lakes girls soccer coach Vicky King said. “It’s just not apparent to a lot of people.”
King helps run Pasco County’s Special Olympics soccer program and coaches her school’s basketball, bowling, soccer and flag football Special Olympics teams.
She said the ruling will help some children who haven’t been given opportunities but will mostly mandate adaptations that are already being made.
Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson was out of the office Friday, but Hillsborough school district spokesman Steve Hegarty said "we're going to fully comply as soon as we receive some guidelines about what is going to be required."
Pinellas Park football coach Kenny Crawford said he doesn’t foresee any problems with the new requirements.
“We try to include everyone at the school,” Crawford said. “We have kids on the team who are deaf, and we have interpreters for them (paid for by the county).”
St. Petersburg football coach Joe Fabrizio, also a special needs teacher, has had students from Nina Harris ESE center in Pinellas Park serve as honorary coaches.
“I think there are benefits to both sides,” Fabrizio said. “I know our kids really rally around some of these students, and they get to see the other side of the coin. And the special-needs students that we’ve had here absolutely love to be a part of the team.”
Zephyrhills High track coach Jason Rouser agrees with the government’s ruling. Even if special-needs athletes can’t participate in the same way as others, they can still enjoy the competition, life lessons and camaraderie.
“There’s a whole host of things they would be missing out on,” Rouser said.
Rouser has coached two girls who have competed in the adaptive shot put. Heather Haynie won the 2010 Class 3A state championship, and Scarlett Lawhorne finished second in the event last spring.
Rouser said having two participants in wheelchairs was never a hindrance or distraction to the team. Other girls would help them compete and set up their equipment, and their interaction provided learning experiences for everyone.
“Learning not the limitations but the things they were not limited to was awesome,” Rouser said.
Staff writers Matt Baker, Rodney Page, Bob Putnam, John C. Cotey and Joey Knight contributed to this report.