Attention high school students with disabilities: The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association wants you.
The MIAA is launching an initiative aimed at increasing participation in adaptive sports in the current school year. Last week, an e-mail was sent to all MIAA principals and athletic directors outlining the initiative. There are plans for a limited program of adaptive events at divisional and state tournaments for athletes with visual impairments and physical disabilities. Adaptive events are slated for swimming and indoor and outdoor track and field. The MIAA is also exploring the possibility of adding wheelchair tennis in the spring.
“I think it’s long overdue,” said Joe LeMar, a Paralympic gold medalist in the 400 meters at the 1992 Barcelona Games and track coach at Durfee High School who helped craft the initiative. “We’re finally getting in touch with the right people to move things forward.
“We know the kids are out there right now. It’s just getting them involved and welcoming them onto the able-bodied teams so that they can have an end goal of competing with other adaptive athletes when it comes to the state meets.”
The great unknown is exactly how many potential athletes with disabilities attend Massachusetts high schools.
Joe Walsh, president of Adaptive Sports New England, a Massachusetts nonprofit focused on increasing sports participation for children and young adults with impairments, estimates that there are roughly 1,000 such candidates at high schools around the state. With aggressive recruiting efforts, he said, he hoped to see participation reach 400-500 in a few years.
By comparison, the MIAA reports that 230,664 students-athletes competed in 33 sports (17 boys, 16 girls) during the 2014-15 academic year.
In the e-mail, coaches and athletic directors were “encouraged to consult with school nurses, guidance counselors, principals, and teachers to identify and recruit eligible student-athletes.”
This school year, as administrators, coaches, teachers, and Adaptive Sports New England get the word out, Walsh would be very pleased with a dozen participants in each sport. When the numbers increase, the goal is to have heats filled by athletes with disabilities — a heat with wheelchair athletes, a heat with amputees, and a heat with visually impaired runners.
“The biggest roadblock has been having schools recognize these students and getting them involved in their programs,” said Dick Baker, MIAA assistant director and liaison for track and field. “Our goal is to make sure schools know we want to give them an opportunity.”
The MIAA has encouraged and accommodated athletes with disabilities in the past, including a deaf sprinter who used a strobe-light start at last spring’s state championship meet and a 2013 Concord-Carlisle graduate who played varsity soccer on crutches. Through the new initiative, the MIAA intends to create a category in which adaptive athletes can compete against each other and win individual championships. But while they will be members of able-bodied teams, they will not be part of the scoring for team rankings unless they perform well enough to place among the top finishers.
In dual meets, facing able-bodied competition, athletes with disabilities will have a chance to qualify for championship events. The qualifying standards will be determined by results from national Paralympic-level competitions. For the first few years, qualifying standards for championship meets may be waived or modified based on the number of athletes with disabilities in a particular event.
Walsh likens the long-term model to age divisions within open competition at road races. Everyone who starts is eligible for overall prizes based on time, but older runners can also take home individual awards based on how they place in their age group. In races such as the Boston Marathon where runners must achieve qualifying standards, those standards vary by age.
“This isn’t about every student-athlete who has a disability participating in state championships,” said Walsh. “The standards are intended to allow student-athletes who have disabilities to qualify for state championships if they are at same level of competitiveness as the other athletes qualified for state championships. It’s recognition that they are the same level of athlete.”
The MIAA initiative follows efforts by the Eastern College Athletic Conference to increase adaptive sports opportunities. This fall, the ECAC became the first collegiate athletic conference to offer NCAA-sanctioned events and varsity-level competition in adaptive sports. During the current school year, the ECAC expects athletes with disabilities to compete for championships in swimming, track and field, and wheelchair basketball.
Walsh sees the increased interest in adaptive sports opportunities as part of a natural growth cycle. He compares it to the soccer boom in the United States over the last few decades. More awareness led to more interest, which led to more teams and more participation. He sees more Paralympic visibility producing more interest at the college level. Now, the ECAC’s leadership is creating more interest at the high school level, and he believes that will trickle down to younger ages, too.
Walsh also credits a 2013 US Department of Education letter that spelled out the civil rights obligations of public elementary and secondary schools as they related to sports participation. The letter reminded schools that they must provide students with disabilities equal opportunities to participate.
Still, for adaptive sports to experience sustained growth, coaches, athletic directors, and student-athletes need to become more educated. To help with that, Adaptive Sports New England plans to hold coaching clinics for adaptive sports and training for athletes with disabilities that will teach techniques specific to their sports and their needs. Additionally, Adaptive Sports New England will supply specialized equipment for athletes, including racing and throwing chairs.
While there remains a long way to go for adaptive sports in Massachusetts high schools, that hasn’t diminished the excitement among coaches and athletes with disabilities. Josh Winsper, a senior thrower at Old Rochester Regional High School with a form of short-limbed dwarfism, can’t wait to see what happens.
“I’m putting my foot through the door,” said Winsper, a Paralympic hopeful. “I’d like to see more athletes that have disabilities compete, whether its amputees, dwarfism, cerebral palsy, anything like that.
“I’m excited because other athletes from the area now have a chance where they didn’t have a chance before.”
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.