Last month, a story showed up in newspapers and on television screens across America about a remarkable high school senior with severe disabilities playing varsity high school basketball.

At the same time the story was circulating, the Department of Education issued an historic human rights edict mandating full inclusion in school sports in our nation.

The timing of these events is fortuitous.
Roman Sweeney is testament to how vital it is for a just and civilized society not to judge, stereotype, or rush to establish limits on what people with disabilities can achieve.

Really, here was Sweeney — born with legs that end just above the knee, and who has no left elbow, forearm, or hand – running the court in a varsity hoops game for North Central Charter Essential School, a secondary school in Fitchburg.

Yes, I said running. Sweeney has titanium leg prosthetics that extend into his high-cut Nike sneakers. Without knees, Sweeney has become proficient in a stiff legged fast gate, and whether on offense or defense — moving forward or backward or sideways — he is able to quickly bounce and pivot and change direction.

Sweeney, adopted from Russia when he was 6, dribbles, catches the ball, passes and shoots off the dribble, and can gather a pass, cradle, and shoot the ball in one coordinated motion. He scores, including hitting three three-pointers this season.

America getting to know Roman Sweeney — it couldn’t have come at a better time.

On Jan. 25, the Department of Education, acting on the recommendation of the Government Accountability Office, sent to schools across the nation a guidelines letter making clear their responsibilities regarding sports under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Section 504 requires that schools receiving federal funding ensure that people with disabilities have the same access to sports and other activities as do those without disabilities.

In a statement that accompanied release of the guidelines, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former standout basketball player at Harvard, said, “Students with disabilities are no different — like their peers without disabilities, these students benefit from participating in sports. But unfortunately, we know that students with disabilities are all too often denied the chance to participate and, with it, the respect that comes with inclusion.”

Of course, the DOE guidelines naturally inspire questions and clarifications.

Schools are required to make “reasonable modifications or aids or services” to help a person with disabilities participate fully in a sport, but they are not directed to change the rules of a sport — and are not required to make modifications or provide aids or services that “constitute a fundamental alteration of the extracurricular athletic activity.”

But in many cases, changes and assistance can be provided that will allow people with a disability to participate in a sport that was previously off-limits to them.

For example, a person with a hearing disability who wants to run track could be provided a visual signal that the race has started.

Far off in the distance is the goal of full inclusion — a world where those with disabilities have the same access to employment, educational and social opportunities as those without disabilities. Yet the DOE actions amount to a long and powerful step in the right direction.

We are all fortunate that those DOE actions, and that long and powerful step, are supported with the stirring and uplifting images and narrative of Roman Sweeney, the young man with disabilities who day in and day out does what can’t be done — and who day in and day out disproves notions of what can be accomplished.

Op-Ed in Boston Herald on March 24, 2013 by Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Follow news of the foundation on its blog, ZehLezeh.

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