Tom Pangia got away with some late hits as a football player at Hammonton High School.
In wrestling, he was penalized occasionally for going for a takedown after the referee had stopped the action.
Pangia, now 22, couldn’t be blamed for playing past the whistle. He is hard of hearing. A drum to accompany the whistle would have helped, Pangia said, because he can feel vibrations.
Accommodations such as that will become commonplace if the U.S. Department of Education gets its way. The department released guidelines in January reminding schools to comply with longstanding legislation that requires schools to accommodate athletes with disabilities.
Those accommodations could be through minor adjustments to existing sports, such as a drum in football or wrestling, or by creating new adapted sports programs for students with severe disabilities.
“What the government’s doing, trying to help everyone out, it’s awesome,” said Pangia, a Gallaudet University senior who is not entirely deaf and didn’t learn until college that drums could help him. “I couldn’t depend on the whistle. I would have to look at the referee for when to go. Sometimes you’re tired. There’s too much going on. It’s kind of helpful if you have something like a drum.”
Cases such as Pangia’s are why words such as “landmark” and “groundbreaking” were thrown around when the guidelines were released in January.
However, New Jersey administrators said the guidelines merely solidified their commitment to the cause. The guidelines should also provide awareness of the laws meant to help athletes such as Pangia, who never requested help.
Mainland Regional High School athletic director Michael Gatley, who held that position at Hammonton when Pangia played there, said this school year he helped facilitate the inclusion of a wheelchair-bound student on the Mustangs’ cheerleading squad.
The student, 15-year-old Somers Point resident Samantha Nawrocki, had cheered in elementary school, so Gatley asked her mother for a DVD of what she had been able to do there.
“When I sat down with my cheerleading coach here, I said, ‘Look, this is how they’ve incorporated Samantha,’” said Gatley, 50, of Linwood. “‘She can do forward somersaults. There are a lot of different things that she can do.’ And I said, ‘Let’s take that page and continue that,’ and that’s what we did and it was absolutely outstanding. She did a great job, and she was a part of everything.”
The New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association said it has made accommodations for disabled athletes in the past. Some examples include allowing:
n Disabled swimmers to start races in the water rather than on blocks
n Guides to assist blind runners
n Wrestlers to use prosthetics
n Disabled golfers to use carts
“I think we’ve been very proactive in that area for a long period of time,” NJSIAA Executive Director Steven Timko said.
The NJSIAA still is exploring the other part of the federal directive: that when minor modifications are insufficient, schools should provide alternate options through adapted sports.
Timko, 67, of South Plainfield, said the NJSIAA and its legal representation were still in the process of figuring out the organization’s legal obligations.
“In order to move forward, we have to totally understand what the law entails,” Timko said.
Adapted sports would not be entirely new to New Jersey, though. The state has held wheelchair events at its track and field championships for more than two decades.
A few local schools also offer adapted soccer, flag football, basketball and softball through the Ocean/Monmouth County High School Challenger League.
Gatley said he would embrace something similar in the Cape-Atlantic League area, but there has not been a demand — possibly, he said, because local children with disabilities already can play baseball through the Absecon-based South Jersey Field of Dreams program.
Southern Regional Assistant Principal Joseph DiPietro is the commissioner of the Ocean/Monmouth challenger league, which he started five years ago. DiPietro said it costs about $6,000 for each school to participate, with the main expenses being the $500 league fee, a stipend for a coach and bus travel. Grants from the federal government and private entities such as the NFL have paid for uniforms and other necessities.
“There are a lot of un-fun mandates out there,” said DiPietro, 40, of Stafford Township. “This is a very low-cost opportunity for kids to get involved.”
The league features about 135 athletes. Some schools have as few as four of five participants, so the league often schedules more than two schools per game so that there are enough athletes to form two teams.
DiPietro said he’s not sure he would want his league to fall under the NJSIAA umbrella. The Challenger League is about social and recreational opportunities, he said, rather than tournaments and competition.
“It works. It’s operational where we are,” DiPietro said. “But without a doubt, I would love to see it go all throughout the state. … If you have a severely disabled child and they’re able to participate in the Field of Dreams like they have in Absecon, what would be wrong with Holy Spirit High School and Atlantic City High School also having the opportunity for those kids to play basketball or soccer or flag football?”
Opportunities such as those are available for all students in Minnesota, whose high school sports governing body has included adapted sports since 1993.
In addition to wheelchair events in track and field, the Minnesota State High School League offers adapted soccer, softball, floor hockey and bowling. The first three have separate divisions for cognitive and physical disabilities. All four are coed.
The cost of governing each adapted sport is the same as it would be for any other, MSHSL Executive Director David Stead said. Adapted bowling, for example, falls under one director’s responsibilities just as football or baseball would.
Stead said adapted athletics are among the most gratifying parts of his job.
“We have 20 board members who sit on our board of directors,” he said. “And every fall, what I do is pass around a list of all the tournaments that we have and ask board members to sign up for fall, winter and spring activities of their interest.
“And some of the very first programs signed up for are the adapted ones because our board members see the kind of support that parents give kids, the kind of enthusiasm that the teams have, the joy on the face of the kids when they win a trophy or they win a medal of some kind.”
The question outside Minnesota, though, is whether anything will come of the federal directive.
DiPietro noted that New Jersey passed its own similar legislation in 2009. That bill stated that the NJSIAA must “work with the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs to establish interscholastic athletic programs” for athletes with disabilities.
“I’ve been in education for a while, and I’ve been an administrator for a while,” said DiPietro, who has been an assistant principal at Southern for six years and previously worked at Holy Spirit. “You get these directives, and then it’s kind of wait and see.”
Timko said the state did not follow up on that 2009 legislation.
“There was some sort of legislation that was passed,” Timko said, “but without any type of funding, without any type of preparation. … If and hopefully when we get this implemented, we (likely will) cover both bases.”
Gatley said that if the demand is there, he is ready to bring adapted sports to the Cape-Atlantic League — even if it is a combined CAL team that plays against other conferences around the state. He said he personally would like to get more involved in that field once he retires.
As for helping someone such as Pangia to have an easier time playing existing varsity sports, Gatley said the large majority of the state’s athletic directors already were open to accommodating those students.
“It’s like anything else,” Gatley said. “You tailor stuff in the classroom. If you have a kid who needs extra time on a test or may need some extra help after school or whatever, we do that. It’s the same thing in athletics. All it is, is an extension of the classroom.”
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