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TALLMADGE -- Starting in November, the Tallmadge City School District will offer students with disabilities a shot at athletics with the introduction of a wheelchair basketball program. On June 21, the Tallmadge Board of Education approved hiring a coach for the program, which will make Tallmadge the third district in the state to boast a school-based wheelchair basketball team.
The co-gender program will be open to youngsters enrolled in the Tallmadge City School District in first through 12th grade; an informational meeting for parents is scheduled for Sept. 27. There are presently nine students who would qualify to participate, according to Rebecca Furbay, director of student services for Tallmadge schools; a team with 10 to 12 members is the goal says Lisa Followay, the founder and executive director of Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio. "We don't have that many kids in wheelchairs in our school district" is a common response to the idea of introducing such a program, Followay says, "and you probably don't, but when you start looking at qualifying disabilities, you start to find there are more kids eligible for this than you thought."
Students with disabilities historically have not had a lot of opportunity to participate in school-based athletics, according to Followay. ASPO has partnered with both the Wooster and Massillon City School Districts to create the first school-based wheelchair basketball teams in Ohio and Followay recently approached Tallmadge about doing so, too. In January 2013, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights issued guidance to school districts' clarifying their obligations under Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities. That act stipulates that students with disabilities are entitled to access to extracurricular activities but Followay says school districts initially didn't understand what that meant. While disabled students were given roles like water boy or statistician, she says the youngsters weren't included in the sports themselves. The guidance clarified what school districts should be doing, Followay says, suggesting they work with a community-based partner to create parallel programs for students with disabilities. "Which is exactly what we're seeking to achieve by working with Tallmadge," Followay reports. The mission she says is to give youngsters an equal chance to participate in sports regardless of their ability.
Followay has a son, Casey, who was born with spina bifida. "He was very athletic -- he wanted to be involved in sports and we searched for opportunities and came across some when we lived in Indiana temporarily but when we moved back home to Ohio we were struck by the lack of opportunity." Followay says her son wanted to be on the school track team and in 2009 he became the first person in the state of Ohio to be included using a racing wheelchair. "And we've worked advocating for inclusion for students with disabilities ever since,' she says. Casey is now 20 years old and attends college part-time.
Followay says the wheelchair basketball program Tallmadge will debut is based on one that's existed in Georgia for about 20 years. "Some may have been born with their disability and some may acquire it at some point in their life so you just really don't know when you might have an eligible student," Followay says, adding, "Also it could also be a student that is a stand up basketball player but they've injured themselves and they're not able to play " When ASPO introduces a wheelchair basketball program, it welcomes able-bodied students to fill out the roster; however, the emphasis is on giving disabled students the chance to participate, Followay says. She notes many people with physical disabilities struggle socially and she says the wheelchair basketball program may help youngsters gain confidence and a sense of purpose and a reason to stay in school.
Students who wish to participate on the wheelchair basketball team are held to the same academic standards established by the school district for participation in athletics. They also must pay any required athletic participation fees. Knowing the equipment is expensive-- each chair costs $2,000 -- The Burton D. Morgan Foundation has provided a grant to ASPO to cover that cost.
The rewards, according to Followay, are priceless. For instance, she says a first-grader in Massillon was only able to do one lap around the court when the season started; by the end, he could do five, she reports. A physical therapist told ASPO officials she wishes basketball was a year-round offering because her client was "doing things with her arm that she'd never been able to do before."
"So (wheelchair basketball) is a fun way to engage them," Followay says, "but it's important, too, to give them the same opportunity to reap the benefits of being involved in sports."
"The wheelchair basketball team is giving students an opportunity to participate in an activity that most would never have imagined possible," according to Furbay. "The students eligible to play on the team have a physical disability that can limit their level of participation in athletics. This team gives them a chance to compete fully with other athletes. The addition of wheelchair basketball to Tallmadge City Schools is an incredible opportunity for our students, their families, the district, and the city."
Schools interested in learning more about ASPO and its services, should visit AdaptiveSportsOhio.org and contact Followay. Tallmadge students interested in joining the team should contact Rebecca Furbay at email@example.com.
Twitter: @ EllinWalsh_RPC