Minnesota offers map to nation for how to include more disabled students in school sports

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After a tough 5-1 loss, Jordan Anderson was sweaty, short of breath and sorry he hadn't played stronger defense during the floor hockey game at Humboldt High. He resolved to improve next time.

"I can get the puck out of my team's end better," he said.

The junior with epilepsy and a developmental disability spends a lot time in the gym. He plays soccer in the fall, floor hockey in the winter and softball and bowling in the spring.

As the federal government pushes schools to include more students like Anderson in sports, Minnesota offers a map for how to do it and a look at the challenges that come along the way.

What started 40 years ago as a game of wheelchair floor hockey among friends has grown into a thriving statewide league that offers four sports. Disabled students can earn letters and win state championships.

"I would say we're the model state," said Jim Muckenhirn, who runs the Minnesota Adapted Athletics Association. "It's a matter of taking what we've already done" and creating similar programs in other states.

The Education Department last week declared that schools should make "reasonable modifications" for disabled students who want to play on traditional sports teams or in their own leagues. It's not clear exactly how the order will be implemented. Officials said they didn't intend to guarantee students with disabilities a spot on competitive teams.

Minnesota's program traces its roots to the early 1970s, when Jim Christy, a student with cerebral palsy, asked his gym teacher at Marshall-University High School in Minneapolis why he and his friends couldn't play hockey against other schools, like their classmates.

Christy and his friends started changing floor hockey rules so "kids with wheelchairs and walkers would be able to play." Soon they had a three-team league. Then more teams joined. Indoor soccer and softball were eventually added.

Parents, coaches and administrators pushed for years to get the state to recognize adapted athletics. In 1992, the Minnesota State High School League took charge. It has separate divisions for athletes with physical and cognitive disabilities. Participation has more than doubled since 1994 — up to 1,700 registrations last season.

Over the past two decades, Minnesota officials have learned how to modify sports for disabled athletes to keep games fair yet competitive, like moving all games indoors (so students on wheels can play) and instituting a no-running rule (to minimize the advantage of more mobile athletes).

They've also confronted big challenges, mostly involving cost. In St. Paul public schools, for example, about 3 percent of students played an adapted sport last year, but the adapted sports budget consumed more than 10 percent of the overall athletics budget.

Teams with players in wheelchairs have to hire buses with lifts. And because many schools have to combine to field enough players for a team, they need several buses to get players to and from practices and games.

Those transportation costs are far worse in rural areas, where having fewer disabled students means traveling longer distances. It's why almost all of Minnesota's adapted sports teams are in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

To cut costs, some schools play sharply limited schedules. In Brainerd, in central Minnesota, the Warriors' adapted floor hockey team has no opponent nearer than 100 miles. Athletics Director Charlie Campbell said the team plays just 10 games — five home, five away — to save money. Even so, the expense would daunt many schools, Campbell said.

"How do you add a pretty good line-item to the budget when most of what you're doing is trying to figure out how to do more with less?" Campbell asked.

In St. Paul, Jordan Anderson's game against the Rochester Raiders this week didn't attract a big crowd — perhaps 20 people, mainly parents and family members. But the game was competitive, and the fans loved it.

Anderson's coach, Mary Bohland, yelled suggestions from the sidelines. People in the stands questioned the referees' calls.

The Hawks and Raiders jockeyed to win face-offs, shouted at one another for poor passing and celebrated goals with high-fives and hugs. Despite the no-running rule, players moved around the court at a brisk jog, some a bit awkwardly or with a limp.

"I know it's exciting for them," said Teri Pinotti, Anderson's grandmother and guardian. "Knowing that they can be involved in this program is really rewarding for me."

Bohland has coached floor hockey, soccer and softball at Humboldt for more than 15 years. She works during the day with many of her players, and said it's made them feel a part of the school.

She recalled what it meant to one of her players a few years ago when he earned a letter jacket before his two brothers did. They were both players on the varsity football team.

"That was like the biggest thing to him," Bohland said. "We're a varsity sport. We're not a recreational sport. And my players get treated as varsity players."