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Official status of disabled student athletes says, ‘We are all the same’

Craig Clough | May 1, 2015

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disabled student athletesA few hours on a Saturday afternoon at a Special Olympics event over 30 years ago changed the course of Teri Hayden’s life, and now it looks as if those few hours have changed the lives of hundreds of disabled student athletes at LA Unified.

After several years of pitches and proposals from Hayden — an adaptive physical education teacher and coordinator with the district — the organization that oversees scholastic athletics for LA Unified made the district the first in California to have an official division for students with disabilities.

While students with disabilities have competed in sports throughout the district and state for decades, it has always been in a semi-official capacity. Starting next spring, those students will earn official medals and win official city championships sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), which organizes athletic leagues and post-seasons for high schools in the state. The athletes will also be able to earn letters and lettermen jackets.

For Hayden, who has worked for the district for 32 years, it’s the culmination of a life’s work.

“I’m still on cloud nine, and I think that will last for a while,” she told LA School Report in a phone interview.

As a result of the ruling, track and field will become the first official inclusive sport and more sports may be added in any category in which general education athletes compete. Twenty-eight schools currently have a track and field team for disabled students. The ruling also throws open the door for other CIF sections in the state to develop their own teams and programs.

“The proposal was to open the door to students with special needs in all CIF sports, down the road competing in things like golf, tennis, or swimming. The possibilities are enormous,” Hayden said.

Cyndi Martinich, the coordinator of Adapted Physical Education at LA Unified and Hayden’s boss, said the ruling only happened because of Hayden’s efforts.

“The one person who deserves the most credit in making this happen is Teri Hayden,” Martinich said. “In our sports programs, Teri functions as the commissioner of our sports. She has been the driving force in making sure this happened.”

LA Unified track and field athletes with disabilities have been competing side-by-side with general education athletes at meets for 28 years under a program simply dubbed “AA,” Haden said, but it was something that happened two years ago that led to this week’s ruling.

In 2013, the CIF LA City Section and LAUSD parted ways after working under the same umbrella for decades. Although not official, AA athletes received CIF medals, but an unintended, and unforeseen, consequence of the split between CIF and LAUSD left AA athletes ineligible for medals.

Hayden stressed that CIF officials have been supportive of her efforts to get AA athletes officially recognized from the beginning, and that it was just an unforeseen red tape issue that needed to be sorted out. Over the last two years, AA athletes have continued to compete at meets but have not received CIF medals. All that changes next spring.

For Hayden, the official recognition by the state is comparable to Major League Baseball integrating and Title IX bringing equal rights to female athletes.

“I think what happened on Monday was equally huge, just like those momentous times in our history when we finally said, ‘We are all the same here,’ ” she said.

Hayden’s work with disabled student athletes began when she was in college, studying to become a physical education teacher. Part of her requirements was a course in adapted physical education, which led her one afternoon to help with a Special Olympics event.

“That afternoon changed the course of my life. I went into adaptive physical education, and have been involved in various sports programs we offer students with disabilities,” said Hayden.

Hayden also talked about the bad feelings she often gets when well-meaning people comment on her work with disabled athletes, and how this official recognition by CIF could put athletes with disabilities in a new light.

“So often when people say, ‘Oh, you you are with the Special Olympics,’ or, ‘You are with special needs kids,’ and relative to competition they will say, ‘Oh its all about fun, isn’t it?’ And when I hear that, to me it’s almost they are saying, ‘It’s not that important… Isn’t that cute,’ and that takes away from our athletes,” she said. “They strive and reach and become the best at their level.”

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