Schools in northeast Indiana are in a much better position than many schools elsewhere to deal with a new federal mandate requiring schools to include students with disabilities in sports programs or provide equal alternatives.
That’s because, according to advocates for the disabled, this area has an asset many other parts of the country lack – the Turnstone Center for Children and Adults with Disabilities.
The directive from the U.S. Department of Education, issued Jan. 24, has been compared with the Title IX expansion of athletic opportunities for women. Schools would be required to make reasonable modifications for students with disabilities or create parallel athletic programs that have comparable standing as mainstream programs.
While there is no deadline and school officials agree that Turnstone is a proven resource, the ruling has left others shaking their heads and wondering if and how such compliance would affect already strained school budgets.
But in northeast Indiana, the answer may be in their backyard.
Turnstone could help schools systems meet and exceed the mandate long before many other places in the country, said Nancy Louraine, executive director of Turnstone.
The center is the only one of its kind in the Midwest and is the fourth-largest sports and recreation Paralympics center in the United States. Anyone within a 150-mile radius of the center at 3320 N. Clinton St. can use the center’s resources, Louraine said.
Turnstone, founded in 1943, provides therapeutic, educational, wellness and recreation programs for children and adults with disabilities.
The bulk of its $4 million annual budget comes from donations.
Already, about 200 area students from all grade levels compete on Turnstone’s athletic teams, which include wheelchair basketball, power soccer, tennis, sled hockey, fencing, kayaking, archery, bocce ball, goal ball for the visually impaired and rowing.
Many schools do not have enough children to make up a team, nor do they have the trained staff necessary to develop and work with that team, Louraine said.
Louraine is hoping that, in light of the new ruling, more school officials will become aware of what the center has to offer in the way of sports for children with disabilities.
Even though schools have done an outstanding job of working with children with disabilities, Turnstone can help in cases in which schools are unable to meet the special needs of some students, Louraine said.
Turnstone has formed many partnerships with area school officials, and Louraine praised them for their inclusiveness and cooperation.
Woodlan High School has a wrestler with no legs. I have to give that school and the coaches credit. They found a way to integrate him into the sport, Louraine said, referring to Nik Hoot, a sophomore with prosthetic legs and undeveloped fingers.
Tony Girod has been coaching wrestling for 20 years. When Hoot approached him and said he wanted to wrestle, the Woodlan coach was noncommittal.
I had no idea how to coach someone who wasn’t like everyone else, Girod said.
But Girod and his assistants recorded wrestling practices and meets and learned Hoot’s strengths and weaknesses, discovering what worked best for Hoot and what to avoid.
They make no special accommodations, however, on the floor.
On the mat, he wrestles just like everyone else, Girod said.
The one concession the team and coaches make occurs when they get a quick break at a match.
To save time, he does not put on his legs to get a drink; he jumps on the back of one of the other wrestlers and they carry him to the drinking fountain, Girod said.
Krista Stockman, Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman, said the district does not yet know the full implications of the ruling.
If someone in a wheelchair wants to play on the basketball team, does that mean we have to set up a new program? We just don’t know, Stockman said.
The corporation, which has 51 schools, already integrates as many students as possible, she said.
We have hearing- and physically impaired students who compete in wrestling, track and cross country, Stockman said.
A coach at Northrop recently worked with and trained an autistic student who is on the cross country team, she said.
They are not automatically excluded, Stockman said.
Referrals are more likely to come from guidance counselors or caseworkers, and the new ruling may result in more students being referred to Turnstone, Stockman said.
We are paying attention to this, watching it very closely and waiting to hear more, Stockman said.
It is too soon to tell what exactly it will mean for us, she said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education said the decision does not impose a requirement on school districts to create separate athletic opportunities for students with disabilities.
The purpose is to ensure inclusion of students with disabilities in existing programs, Education Department spokesman Jim Bradshaw said.
Although compliance could require school districts to pay for reasonable modifications or aids and services, in most cases, we believe that providing these reasonable modifications and necessary aids and services should not create burdensome new costs for school districts.
For instance, a simple rules change allowing a one-handed swimmer to use a one-hand’ rather than a two-hand’ touch to finish in competitive swimming would cost nothing. Many schools are already providing equal access to students with disabilities, at little or no cost.
‘A good match’
The problem is that many schools may have a few children in wheelchairs but no way to integrate them into mainstream sports like basketball, Louraine said.
You can’t create a team with one or two kids, she said, but they could become members of one of our teams.
Turnstone has three wheelchair basketball teams, and all sports teams travel to compete, she said.
Last week we had two teams in Canada, she said.
Children with disabilities have the same wants and needs as others but in many cases are more isolated, making participation even more essential to their growth, Louraine said.
Our programs can help them with socialization, physical and emotional development, to build strength, achieve goals, learn team work and gain self-confidence, she said.
The center’s newest sport, rowing, debuts in the spring. The team will practice on Fort Wayne’s rivers.
Concordia High School has helped us with an adaptive rowing technique, Louraine said.
The new mandate comes at a time when Turnstone is planning to expand its Paralympics program and begin instructional classes for those who wish to coach children with disabilities in competitive sports.
It’s a good match, Louraine said. All children have the right to these kinds of opportunities.
It will allow the center to build new partnerships and build on the ones it already has, she said.
We are very excited to see this happen.