With children who have special needs the question isn’t whether they should play, rather it is how to best integrate them into playing. The answer will depend on a number of factors that include, but are not limited to, whether this is a public school team, the type of disability any individual has, the league the team is playing in, and the goals of the sports program itself. Some of this is related to Federal Civil Rights Law.

All scenarios will likely be different and there is no way that we can cover everything here that you will need to know to help you with every possible question that can arise when you coach youth sports and encounter the opportunities and challenges of youth with disabilities. However, if you are not experienced in this area (which most youth sports coaches aren’t until they have reason to be), this should help guide you in the right direction.

Disabled Kids in Sports

There are just as many benefits of playing basketball for disabled kids as those who do not face these challenges. This is true for developmentally and physically disabled children. The challenges they face when they join a team will have as great of a range as there are disabilities, however, it is important to recognize that not every sport or every team will be appropriate for every kid with every disability. In the case of basketball, which requires quick thinking and coordinated movement with a team, combined with significant time moving (like soccer), this may mean that some kids will not enjoy themselves on teams and in leagues that are not designed around them.

Many parents who have children with disabilities recognize that mainstreaming their kids into sports teams is not always the right approach for their child. Take for instance USA Bobsled Federation CEO Darrin Steele’s insights about his own son with severe ADHD:

...have yet to find a sports program that can handle him. Although he has a high level of athletic ability, mainstream sports require too much cognitive application and team sports require too much communication and social interaction. For now, he swims, climbs, and dances for fun. I recently took him to a martial arts class because I trusted the coach and the coach knows my son. He certainly enjoyed the experience, but he didn’t understand why he was punching and kicking the heavy bags and he doesn’t like to stand in line.

Kids like my son need much more one-on-one instruction at the beginning and they will learn faster if they are shown what to do rather than told. The other kids will accept these kids, strange behavior and all, if the coach sets the tone. Those aren’t major modifications and they could make all the difference.

I have seen some resistance to creating programs specific to kids with developmental disabilities. I certainly think we should include them in mainstream programs where, when, and if it makes sense. Sports are fun when the challenge is reasonable and the athletes and teams are evenly matched. Yes, there should be winners and losers because there are important life lessons to be learned. If evenly matched means that teams are exclusively made up of kids with developmental disabilities, then we should encourage it. If we can include them into mainstream programs with some adaptations to their training, then we should most definitely do that.

The thing that we should remember about all sports is that we are ultimately competing against ourselves. It’s much easier to define success in general terms that we can all understand, but all participants should celebrate the idea of personal struggles and personal bests.

The Benefit of Sports for Kids with Disabilities

Children with special needs can make great gains playing sports, whether in programs just for them or on integrated teams.

In 2017 US News And World Report had a fantastic article about “How Playing Sports Can Help Special Needs Kids On and Off the Field… Athletics can boost confidence for kids with autism and other developmental challenges.” The article encourages parents and coaches to embrace sports and opportunities for these exceptional children, but to also listen to what the children are saying about their involvement in those sports. If a passion exists, the article essentially says, then find an outlet for the kid, but don’t put them in a situation that sets them up to fail. In particular, a kid with developmental disabilities is not likely to feel good when mainstreamed into a competitive basketball league and is expected to keep up. It isn’t fair to the kid.

Most youth sports are about the kids and the benefits they get - with the exception of elite leagues and some high schools there are not a lot of teams in which winning truly comes in the mission statement of the organizing body. In those cases the integration of all individuals is by competitive selection based on the highest performance individual that a coach recognizes to build a full team. Some of those team members may have disabilities, but if they do it is highly unlikely that they are noticeable during practice or game time or they would not be on that particular team. Thus, most of the questions arise in the other venues available which can be private or non-profit business, civic, or educational in nature.

Federal Civil Rights Law and Youth Sports

Personal insights and best practices aside, there are laws in place that require equal opportunities in sports for children. In private business environments this is not true, but for public school sports it is and many civic leagues are beholden to the federal laws as well. Below is what the US Department of Education has to say on the subject:

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. This is simply wrong. While it’s the coach’s job to pick the best team, students with disabilities must be judged based on their individual abilities, and not excluded because of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes.

Knowledgeable adults create the possibilities of participation among children and youth both with and without disabilities. [See the]... released guidance that clarifies existing legal obligations of schools to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics and clubs. We make clear that schools may not exclude students who have an intellectual, developmental, physical, or any other disability from trying out and playing on a team, if they are otherwise qualified.

Federal civil rights laws require schools to provide equal opportunities, not give anyone an unfair head start. So schools don’t have to change the essential rules of the game, and they don’t have to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage. But they do need to make reasonable modifications (such as using a laser instead of a starter pistol to start a race so a deaf runner can compete) to ensure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else.

When figuring this out for your team, as a coach try to keep in the back of your mind what one parents’ association in New York City Metro says, “Children with special needs can make great gains playing sports, whether in programs just for them or on integrated teams.” This is not easy territory, but no one ever said coaching was easy and these children should not be shut out of the opportunity to participate and enjoy what they love just because they look or act differently than some of the other kids you coach.

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