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Schools receive guidance on including students with disabilities in sports

By Erica Ayisi, NBC News

Adam McGouirk is 13 years old. He’s in the 8th grade and like many middle school students, he loves sports. 

Adam has been playing basketball and handball for a few years now, despite having spastic cerebral palsy. Spastic cerebral palsy affects Adam’s lower extremities impairs his movements, coordination and balance. His neurological condition makes it challenging for him to join his school’s sports teams -- but that will change next school year, as the Department of Education recently announced new guidelines for integrating students with disabilities into school sports. 

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated on his blog, “We make clear that schools may not exclude students who have an intellectual, developmental, physical, or any other disability from trying out and playing on a team, if they are otherwise qualified.” 

The guidance states that “the law does not require that a student with a disability be allowed to participate in any selective or competitive program offered by a school district, so long as the selection or competition criteria are not discriminatory.” 

Adam plays sports for a private league. Shooting hoops has made him stronger and could help him playing at school with his friends. 

“It would be a wonderful experience for schools,” Adam said. “They want to just play sports and be supportive.”  

Since Adam started playing basketball for the Henry County Hurricanes, his upper body strength has increased immensely -- at times he’s able to get around with just a cane. His coach, Harlon Matthews, is in charge of wheel chair sports and he agrees. Matthews says Adam is making strides physically and socially. He says students like Adam just want equality. 

Coach Harlon would know – he too is in a wheelchair. 

“We don’t want anything above and we don’t want anything below,” Matthews said. “I don’t want anything extra-just help these kids be a part of something that’s very meaningful and impactful for their lives.” Questions remain, however: How much will it cost schools to integrate students with disabilities? Will this directive include students with both cognitive and physical disabilities? Nevertheless, students and parents are looking forward to the changes. 

Bryan McGouirk, Adam’s father, hopes this directive will give more voice to students with disabilities. “Some people seem to have the misunderstanding that kids with disabilities are going to be placed into some regular athletics and that’s not we’re looking for at all,” McGouirk. “We’re looking for a separate and defined program that our kids can compete in.”