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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Nina Welfle, 17, shoots at basketball practice at Turnstone Center on North Clinton Street last week. The facility is one of the nation’s best for athletes with disabilities.

Opening doors too long closed

The decades-long battle over implementation of Title IX offers a blueprint now that schools receiving public funding have been directed to make reasonable athletic accommodations for students with disabilities: It might be a struggle, but everyone benefits.

The Jan. 25 order by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights clarifies school districts’ obligations to provide equal access to extracurricular athletic opportunities. It’s a right students with disabilities already have under the Rehabilitation Act, but a 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office found many students have been denied.

The parallels between the 1972 federal civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination in education and last month’s order are tough to miss, given that most of the attention on Title IX has surrounded its effects on athletic participation. But the landmark law applies to education opportunities overall.

Likewise, the promise of the order regarding students with disabilities should be considered not just for sports opportunities involved but for the doors it is likely to open beyond those. How many young women emboldened by their success on an athletic field have been inspired to take on classroom and career challenges? How many fields once dominated by men have been opened to women since 1972? But more important – how has the nation overall benefited because they have?

With that in mind, schools should eagerly be looking for ways to encourage athletic participation by students with disabilities. In northeast Indiana, an invaluable resource in doing this is the Turnstone Center for Children and Adults with Disabilities. The non-profit organization is a national leader in recreational programs for children and adults with disabilities.

Turnstone’s athletic teams now include about 200 area students competing in wheelchair basketball, power soccer, tennis, sled hockey, fencing, kayaking, archery, bocce ball, goal ball for the visually impaired and rowing, The Journal Gazette’s Vivian Sade reported recently. Executive Director Nancy Louraine said Turnstone can help schools meet the special needs of athletes with disabilities. The organization’s North Clinton Street center is the fourth-largest sports and recreation Paralympics center in the United States. Anyone within a 150-mile can use Turnstone’s resources, Louraine said.

Area schools also can find inspiration from Woodlan High School, with an enrollment of about 775 in grades 7-12. Wrestling coach Tony Girod and his assistants made it happen for Nik Hoot, a sophomore born without the lower half of both legs and with undeveloped hands. As a freshman, he qualified for regional competition with a 21-14 record.

With Title IX as a model, more educators and coaches should see the possibilities for all students to compete and grow in confidence. The resources and inspiration are right here in northeast Indiana.