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Chris Murphy and Tom Mix / The Forum, Published February 10 2013

Adaptive sports providing more opportunities for students with disabilities

Fargo-Moorhead - All Dawn Birch’s daughter, Dakota, wanted to do was to be like everybody else at Fergus Falls High School. Dakota is autistic, has cerebral palsy and is developmentally delayed, so fitting in during day-to-day life is hard enough.

So Dawn got her daughter a sport.

“She wanted to play sports like the other kids in school and be on a team,” Dawn said. “I went to the athletic director and five or six months later – after many 6 a.m. meetings – we had an adaptive bowling team.”

Five years later, Dawn is in her fifth year of coaching the Fergus Falls adaptive bowling team and 18-year-old Dakota has a Fergus Falls’ letterman’s jacket, which will have her name, year, letter and four bars stitched on it to go along with her four pins by the time she graduates this summer.

“They wear their uniform on Fridays at school and they smile ear to ear,” Dawn said. “It means a lot to them. They think they’re somebody now.”

Fergus Falls athletic director Gary Schuler will never forget the smiles.

“Once we got it going, it was a no-brainer,” Schuler said. “We give 10 to 15 to 20 kids a chance to letter at Fergus Falls and be part of a competitive venture. We’ve geared our program to give as many kids a chance to compete as possible. At the

end-of-the-year banquet, it’s a pleasure to see the smiles on their faces when we give them their letters.”

The United States Education Department Office of Civil Rights recently declared schools should make “reasonable modifications” for disabled students who wish to participate in extracurricular activities.

The state of Minnesota has been a model in implementing and sanctioning adapted athletic leagues for students with special needs. There are 1,700 registrations in Minnesota for adapted sports.

In North Dakota, special needs students participate in existing extracurricular activities, but it is on an individual basis.

North Dakota High School Activities Association Executive Secretary Sherm Sylling said the NDHSAA office is in the process of gathering information from its member schools on how best to make programing available to special needs students.

“The whole goal with these new guidelines is to expand the opportunities for students with disabilities,” Sylling said. “I believe these to be reasonable expectations. We just have to wait to hear from our member schools on what they need. We see helping them comply with these new guidelines as our obligation.”

The guidelines require the inclusion where possible in existing programs and existing teams. It also permits the creation of adapted sports teams that are allowed mixed-gendered rosters.

Fargo Public Schools activities director Todd Olson has received the guidelines and said many special needs students within the school district participate in several activities with the supervision of personal aides.

“Fargo Public Schools has a long standing history that allows students with disabilities to participate in our existing activities,” Olson said. “We will continue to provide the accommodations that we have had in the past and if there is additional things that can be done to increase participation in our activities we will be open to those as well.”

Olson and Sylling said there is no timeline as to when adapted sports leagues would be created in North Dakota. That will likely depend on several things including demand, distance and finance.

“We don’t know any exact numbers or what the demand is for these activities,” Sylling said. “I think it will be a challenge for some of the schools, but we must figure out how to accommodate all of our students when it comes to participating in extracurricular activities.”

Help in creating teams and adapted sports leagues on the front end could come from Special Olympics North Dakota, which already serves more than 1,400 athletes in the state and is positioning itself for expansion.

“With these new guidelines it is going to speed up our ability to become more school-based,” Special Olympics North Dakota President and CEO Kathleen Meagher said. “Now we are going to have the ability to encourage the creation of unified teams at the schools.

“We have the programs. They don’t have to create something from nothing. They just need to provide the students. It would be an incredible relationship.”

In Minnesota, most of the adapted sports opportunities are found in highly populated areas.

“The schools I was at in the Twin Cities had multiple adaptive programs and it was great to see those kids flourish,” Moorhead athletic director Dean Haugo said. “It’s not that you can’t travel, but you just need some sound proximal teams. The biggest roadblock is competition. It’s something that truthfully is a very exciting piece with a group of kids who are excited to be involved.

“It’s an idea that is certainly building momentum. It’ll only be a matter of time before each school is looking at ways to provide activities for these students.”

Ada-Borup athletic director Kelly Anderson echoed Haugo’s sentiments. When asked what would be the biggest obstacle, Anderson said:

“Finding appropriate competition if it is a (Minnesota State High School League) adapted activity such as floor hockey, soccer. If we have an opportunity to get a student involved, regardless of disability, we are going to work hard to make it happen.”

Schuler found an easy way to get over the travel roadblock – eliminate it. Fergus Falls has an eight-team schedule for adaptive bowling and travels twice – once in the regular season and once to state – via parents instead of renting a bus.

“Each team bowls at their home bowling alley Friday and we email the scores Monday to the schools we’re bowling against,” Schuler said. “Wayzata is bowling at Wayzata, Fergus is bowling at Fergus and we match scores.”

Schuler had an idea, but it took a little shove from Dawn and some advice from a Central Lakes Conference rival.

“I explored what Alexandria had done, talked to them and we made a model based on what they do,” Schuler said. “If people have questions they certainly can give me a call.”

It always helps to have good neighbors. The Fergus Falls team found a home at Northern Aire Bowling Lanes.

“It takes a community,” Dawn said. “We get a discount at the bowling alley and we actually even get free pizza there at the year-end party. It’s nice to see. If I can do it, anyone can.”

Being a smaller town is no longer a viable reason for ignoring a growing idea.

“We’re one step away from adding another sport,” Schuler said. “That’ll give at least 20 other kids, who don’t play hockey, basketball or football, the opportunity to compete and letter. We truly believe all kids deserve the opportunity to compete in something if they so choose.”

Readers can reach Forum reporters Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548 and

Tom Mix at (701) 241-5562