Yes, Disabled People Play Sports, and Yes, We Have a Right to Equal Access

Huge news earlier this year as the Department of Education finally ruled that disabled students have an equal right to access sports facilities and be involved in athletics. Specifically, schools are “required to provide a qualified student with a disability an opportunity to benefit from the school district’s program[s] equal to that of students without disabilities.” This is a big moment for disabled athletes as well as disabled kids who want a chance to fully participate in school sports even if they don’t want to pursue serious athletics, and many (rightly) compared it to Title IX for women, in terms of creating a mandate for equal access.

This isn’t just huge because it means that disabled students in school right now will have a chance to participate in athletics. Like Title IX, it will also pave the way to increased representation in sports as a whole; just as we see more women athletes now because of Title IX, we’re going to be seeing more disabled athletes in the future as a result of this policy. Disabled athletes are going to be taken more seriously, rather than being viewed as aberrations, freak shows, and people to be gawked at during the Paralympics and ignored otherwise. Disabled athletes will start making serious inroads, landing their own contracts, endorsements, and high-profile news coverage, because there will be more of them, and they will have had access from an early age.

And since participation in athletics and sports can have a lot of positives, it will mean an improved quality of life for some disabled people. People who can and want to participate in physical activity can enjoy the feeling of being fit and active in their bodies, however they happen to work. They can develop strength, flexibility, and a wider range of motion. They can protect their bones and joints from future injuries and condition their cardiorespiratory systems. For those who just enjoy movement, sports can be a great way to get out and about, and it can be a fantastic way to burn off steam, cope with stress, find a productive way to channel intense emotions. It can also boost self-confidence, which can be especially important for disabled kids who are accustomed to being marginalised and treated as second class because they don’t look, act, or move like many of the kids around them.

As with Title IX, this mandate doesn’t just mean good news for athletes. It also increases representation in society as a whole, and breaks down the barriers that create separation. As schools are forced to integrate disabled athletes into their programmes, they’re also going to be forced to confront disability, ableism, and the role of disability in their facilities. So are their students, who may be accustomed to thinking of disability as an abstract issue or something that doesn’t apply to them. With more disabled people out, about, and in public comes a breakdown of stigma and the fear and hatred that comes from a lack of knowledge.

Yet, I already see the complaints (again, mirroring what happened with Title IX). They range from the ignorant (‘but disabled people can’t play sports so what’s the point?’) to the hateful (‘great, now the crips will take all the good spots on the sports team because of quotas’). Despite the fact that the DOE mandate clearly states disabled students must try out for sports like anyone else and should not receive preferential treatment, people seem convinced that opening sports to disabled students is going to destroy the very fabric of school sports team and result in complete disruption.

Schools must “afford qualified students with disabilities an equal opportunity for participation in extracurricular athletics in an integrated manner to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of the student.” That doesn’t sound like preferential or special treatment to me. It sounds like basic accommodation, which has been affirmed as a right in the United States on multiple occasions. Disabled students have a right to try out for sports, they have a right to access sports facilities, and they have a right to be considered fairly with their peers when it comes to positions on sports teams and other opportunities.

The fact that people seem almost offended by the idea of disabled athletes is very telling. Nondisabled people are fond of reducing disabled people to blobs that sit in the corner being sad, and thus are very uncomfortable with the idea of physically active disabled people, let alone with enshrining the right to access physical activity. The same people who spout on about how exercise is a cure-all and everyone should be exercising more are the people screaming about how this mandate will destroy school sports by allowing disabled people to walk, roll, and crutch among them as though they are human beings instead of inert objects for everyone to stare at.

Or they’re the ones who fetishise people like Oscar Pistorius and think that every disabled athlete could turn out to be him with the right mentoring. The fact is, of course, that the vast majority of disabled students getting involved in school sports are not going to go on to become elite athletes competing on the international level, just as the vast number of girls playing tennis in high school don’t go on to become Venus Williams. Oscar Pistorius is an extraordinary athlete not because he’s disabled, but because he has a rare athletic gift, the drive for athletic training, access to great facilities and trainers, and a certain amount of genetic and metabolic fortune.

Not everyone needs to become him, but every disabled student who wants to play sports should have the chance to do so. And for those who do dream of becoming him, that dream is going to be a lot easier to fulfill now than it was before.