Parents and educators say the Beaufort County School District has done a good job of including students with disabilities in sports programs, but they hope new federal guidelines will push it and the rest of the state to do even more.
Under the guidelines, students with disabilities must be given a fair shot to play on traditional sports teams or have their own leagues, the U.S. Department of Education said in January.
"Hopefully, this opens up more (opportunities) so that more people understand who these special-needs students are and what they are capable of ... and leads to more welcoming and tolerant schools across the country," said Kathy Cramer, a Special Olympics coordinator and special-education teacher at Hilton Head Island Middle School.
Disabled students who want to play for their schools should be allowed to join traditional teams if officials can make "reasonable modifications" to accommodate them, according to the new guidelines.
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If adjustments would fundamentally alter a sport or give the student an advantage, schools are directed to create parallel athletic programs.
Even before the guidelines, some Beaufort County School District sports teams welcomed student-athletes with disabilities.
Hilton Head Island attorney George Mullen said he and his wife had a great experience working with the district when it came to their son.
Chip Mullen, 21, who has Down syndrome, played on the Hilton Head High football team and became a national sensation in 2011 after he was given the chance to run for a 77-yard touchdown -- the final play of his career -- during the Seahawks' playoff loss at Myrtle Beach.
ESPN featured the run on SportsCenter, and a YouTube video of it has more than 340,000 views.
Mullen also scored a defensive touchdown against Berkeley to end a game earlier that season, and wrestled for the high school.
"We got lucky," George Mullen said. "Coaches welcomed him and put him through the same conditioning and drills. They treated Chip just like they treated everybody, and Chip thrived. He never missed a practice. We got zero resistance."
Mullen, though, said he's concerned that districts, in trying to meet the new guidelines, will impose regulations that "harm the integrity of the game."
"Chip, like everybody else, should have the opportunity to make the football team or wrestling team," he said. "But I don't know that you need the federal government to force its will on systems that are already working."
'NO STUDENT DENIED'
Seth M. Galanter, acting assistant secretary for the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, emphasized in his letter in January that education officials did not intend to change sports traditions dramatically or guarantee students with disabilities a spot on competitive teams. Instead, they insisted that schools may not exclude students based on their disabilities if they can keep up with their classmates.
The new directive is in response to a 2010 U.S. Government Accountability Office report that found students with disabilities in grades kindergarten through 12th grade do not have the same opportunities to participate in athletics. It clarifies existing federal law that says students with a physical or mental impairment be given the same opportunity as their classmates to benefit from athletic programs.
"Access to, and participation in, extracurricular athletic opportunities provide important health and social benefits to all students, particularly those with disabilities," Galanter wrote.
School districts, though, can require a level of skill or ability to participate in a competitive program, so long as the criteria are not discriminatory, according to the guidelines. Schools may not rely on generalizations or assumptions about a disability and how it may limit a particular student.
No student has been denied an opportunity to participate in athletics in the Beaufort County district, according to chief student services officer Gregory McCord.
"Any student-athlete that wants to participate, they participate," McCord said. "If there are provisions that need to be made, our coaches make them."
For example, the district provides sign language for student-athletes with impaired hearing, and interpreters for students whose first language isn't English.
School athletic directors and coaches sought for comment either could not be reached or deferred to McCord.
The district also partners with the Special Olympics by providing transportation, coaching and money to enable students with intellectual and other disabilities to participate in athletics. One of its focuses is "unified sports," which combine students with disabilities and without, who are of similar skill levels, on the same team.
Four years ago, the district became one of the first in the state to offer unified sports, said Barbara Oswald, director of youth initiatives with Special Olympics South Carolina.
Cramer, the local Special Olympics coordinator, hopes the federal directive will encourage the district to add more unified-sports offerings.
Currently, Hilton Head Middle, Hilton Head High, Beaufort High, Bluffton High, Battery Creek High, M.C. Riley Elementary and Beaufort Elementary receive federal grants through Special Olympics to provide unified-sports teams for bowling, golf, disc golf and bocce. Students train and compete during the school day against teams from other schools in the district.
Special Olympics also provides district students with disabilities a chance to participate in track and field, tennis and horseback riding.
"The program has been very successful in celebrating these athletes ... and creating an accepting and inclusive school climate," Oswald said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.