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Local schools pave way in accommodating disabled athletes

Nico Calabria, a varsity soccer player at Concord-Carlilse High School, who has only one leg, is pictured at a team practice session at the school.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff/file 2012

Nico Calabria, a varsity soccer player at Concord-Carlilse High School, who has only one leg, is pictured at a team practice session at the school.

In the last sub-varsity football game of the season, the quarterback tossed Hull High School freshman Riley Harte the ball. Harte, No. 31, raced down the field, surrounded by Cohasset players, and scored.

Then he performed a ritual from one of his heroes: He danced the Victor Cruz salsa in the end zone.

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“It was one of those parental moments that you’ll never see again,” said Riley’s father, Vinny Harte. “To see your son do something that’s really a lifelong dream for him. . . . There wasn’t a kid on the other side who wasn’t jumping up and down and cheering.”

The fact that Riley has Down syndrome made the moment sweeter. Now athletic directors and coaches around the country are considering how to make sports more readily available to disabled students, in the wake of new federal guidelines released last month.

The Department of Education’s new guidelines say schools must make “reasonable accommodations” — those that do not fundamentally change the sport or give students an unfair advantage — to allow disabled athletes to compete in sports. And for students who can only compete with more significant accommodations, schools must create a separate athletic opportunity, the department said.

“I think this directive could certainly bring sweeping changes in locker rooms for years to come, and, at a minimum, bring these issues to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness and make school districts discuss access in ways that they probably weren’t otherwise,” said Warren Zola, assistant dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management and a professor of sports law.

The guidelines do not set deadlines for schools to comply, Zola noted. Exactly what kinds of accommodations schools must make will probably be determined as courts hear cases about the law, Zola said. “I also understand that there will be a backlash, and this will be difficult, and it’s never easy for someone to force an issue to have an opportunity,” he said.

Riley Harte had always loved football, and dreamed of playing. So his freshman fall, after a stint in drama, he joined the team. His newness to the sport meant the coaches worked on conditioning.

“We had a lot of work to do,” said Jim Quatromoni, Hull’s athletic director. “The first thing was we wanted him to be able to defend himself. . . . When he was coming off the line, we didn’t want another kid to just blast him.”

Riley was exhausted by the practices, and considered dropping football and returning to drama, his father said. But his parents told him that he had made a commitment to the team and his teammates.

“He had growing pains throughout, but he really stuck with it,” Vinny Harte said.

Before the two games in which Riley played, school officials told opposing coaches that No. 31 was a student with disabilities. In his first game, his father watched as he took the field.

“For me, it was nerve-racking,” said Vinny Harte. “But for him, it was his Super Bowl.”

Riley had long wanted to dance like Victor Cruz — a wide receiver for the New York Giants who does the salsa after every touchdown he scores. So after Riley scored in his second game, he threw down the ball and did the dance in the end zone.

In Duxbury, cross-country officials made accommodations for a young woman with autism who wanted to run on the team. “Her sisters ran for us,” said Thom Holdgate, Duxbury’s athletic director. “So when she came into the high school, she wanted to also do it.”

The team’s assistant coach, who had experience working with special education students, runs with the student, now a sophomore, during races. Holdgate believes cross-country is a sport that can more easily accommodate disabled students.

“Some of it’s common sense,” he said. “There’s no reason, unless it’s a special situation, for special needs kids not to be involved.”

Duxbury has a strong Best Buddies program — pairing students with others who have intellectual and developmental disabilities — which Holdgate believes could expand to provide athletic opportunities, if required under the new guidelines.

Elsewhere in Greater Boston, a group of school districts created a new track league last year with teams that include students with intellectual disabilities. Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough and nearby Westborough High School jointly created one of the teams that competes in the league.

The team costs about $5,000 a year — partly covered by a grant — for coaching and transportation and other expenses, said Francis Whitten III, Algonquin’s athletic director. Parents do not pay a fee.

Last fall, a video of Nico Calabria, scoring a soccer goal for Concord-Carlisle High, raced around the world within hours. It shows Calabria, born with one leg, holding himself aloft with his crutches as his left foot slammed the ball into the net.

But before Calabria became an Internet celebrity, his coaches had to make sure he could legally play high school soccer, since his metal crutches are not standard equipment. The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association approved the forearm crutches for competition, as long as he agreed to wrap them in foam to prevent injuries to other players.

“We wanted to give him an opportunity like everyone else,” said Barry Haley, Concord-Carlisle athletic director.

The MIAA is sometimes asked to consider cases of disabled students who want to join public school teams. Haley, who also sits on the MIAA’s board of directors, remembers a request from a student who played hockey using a sled — two hockey blades attached to a frame. The MIAA did not allow him to join his high school team.

“That was one that just didn’t work,” Haley said.

The new federal guidelines were announced after a report by the Government Accountability Office found that students with disabilities don’t have the same access as students without disabilities to extracurricular sports in public elementary and secondary schools. The GAO asked the US Department of Education to clarify the legal responsibilities of the schools.

The new guidelines give examples of what might be required. For instance, if a runner with a hearing impairment qualified for the track team, but could not hear the starter’s pistol, the school district would be required to also provide a visual cue at the beginning of races, the department wrote. But schools are not required to make accommodations that would change an essential part of a sport, such as adding an extra base in baseball.

The regulations do not mean sports teams must allow all disabled students to participate; they would be required to try out for the team, and show they are qualified to play.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kathleenburge.
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