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Area schools ahead of curve in opportunities for disabled athletes

NinNissly Lake Forest hugs her coach Cindy Dell after 100 freestyle race for athletes with disabilities for during IHSA girls

Nina Nissly, of Lake Forest, hugs her coach, Cindy Dell, after the 100 freestyle race for athletes with disabilities for during the IHSA girls swimming finals at Evanston Township High School in November. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 1, 2013 7:05AM

New national guidelines now require schools to give disabled students the opportunity to compete on traditional sports teams or an equal alternative option, but many Chicago area students already have that opportunity.

Diana Smith, principal at York High School in Elmhurst, said a deaf student is on the swim team and other disabled students are on the cross-country, track and cheerleading teams. The school has other programs in place for disabled students who are unable to compete on the traditional teams.

The same is true at north suburban New Trier, where District 203 Supt. Linda L. Yonke said, “We are blessed with the funding that we can offer a full extracurricular program. Facilities are always a challenge, but we have two campuses and we find space for kids to meet and participate.”

The Illinois High School Association provides opportunities for physically disabled students to compete for their schools against each other in bowling, cross-country, swimming and track. It also offers wheelchair basketball.

Special Olympics Illinois also gives physically and mentally disabled student-athletes a chance to participate in 19 sports and about 170 competitions, said Dave Breen, who is president and CEO. The program also work with the Chicago Public Schools.

A 2010 Government Accountability Office study found students with disabilities participated in athletics at consistently lower rates than students without disabilities. At New Trier, almost all disabled students participate in an athletic program, Yonke said.

The U.S. Education Department announced the national guidelines on Friday. Bruce Howard, of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said that guidance is important in providing opportunities to disabled athletes.

“I would imagine that there are a lot of schools and groups that may not have known this information in the specificity that they know it now,” Howard said.

The directive does not guarantee students with disabilities a spot on traditional competitive teams, but it prevents schools from excluding students based on their disabilities if they can keep up with classmates.

Breen doesn’t see a problem with exclusion in Illinois. “A lot of the schools have bent over backwards” to include disabled students, he said. Some disabled athletes participate on their traditional school team and in Special Olympics Illinois sports and competitions.

A deadline for all schools to comply with the new guidelines was not announced.

“Given that the ruling was just issued, CPS will be reviewing it and determining how it impacts Chicago Public Schools and its students,” CPS spokesman Frank Shuftan said in a statement.

Other states that already offer programs for disabled athletes include Ohio, Minnesota and Maryland.

Contributing: AP

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