The American Disabilities Act and the "Total Institution": How Colleges Aid Disabled Athletes

The American Disabilities Act (ADA) was put into effect on July 26, 1990. It was this country's first comprehensive civil rights law for individuals who suffer from physical and mental disabilities. Under the provisions of the ADA, exclusionary processes can no longer be legally applied to people who have disabilities, and the ADA provides grounds for financial or like compensation if exclusionary processes are put into practice.

The ADA affects all institutions and businesses, more so if they accept federal funding. In the case of higher educational institutions such as state universities, the ADA is promoted to the highest extent. In this type of university, the buildings must have access to individuals with physical handicaps, and programs of comparable abilities must be offered to those who both have and do not have any form of disability. (ADA: Section III) In other words, everyone is separate but equal under the ADA inclusionary practices.

This is likewise true in regards to inter-collegiate athletics. Long before the ADA was passed, the government ruled that college and other undergraduate learning institutions were discriminating on the basis of gender. It was found that when a funding allotment was given to athletics, the men's teams were the recipients of a significantly larger percentage of the funding. Thus, the men's teams had newer uniforms and equipment, were able to schedule practice time more easily, and had an overall more significant level of support from the institution's governing board. Such practices were found to be discriminatory in the 1980s, and the government ruled that all "federally funded sports programs must provide equal resources to male and female athletics, regardless of the actual demand". (Blumner: 6)

Currently, the ADA supports all inter-collegiate athletics programs. Under the provisions of the Act, all students with demonstrable disabilities who express a desire to participate in inter-collegiate athletics are encouraged under the ADA. Also, when a disabled student expresses interest, the sports department is supposed to make access to these sports as easy as possible. Access refers to ability to get to the arena, as well as being provided with equipment that can be used by a disabled individual. It also, and perhaps most importantly, encourages acceptance on the team on the part of those individuals who are not disabled.

However, there is some disagreement on the effectiveness of the ADA in relation to inter-collegiate athletics. Many proponents of the ADA feel that the Act was initiated to provide support for the disabled in a working or an academic environment, not in a sporting arena. Through funding inter-collegiate athletics for the disabled, the university is taking away from funding that could be better used for promoting equality in a classroom. While not keeping to the spirit of the ADA, this is a valid point and will be examined

This paper shall address the topic of inter-collegiate athletics in relation to the ADA. The main points that will be examined are the ADA in relation to physical disabilities and inter-collegiate athletics, the ADA in relation to mental disabilities and inter-collegiate athletics, and how the inclusion of disabled students in inter-collegiate athletics is affecting the performance of the teams. It is hoped that this examination of the ADA in relation to inter-collegiate athletics will help to demonstrate how the ADA is affecting sports performance in American collegiate athletics.

Physical Disabilities

When one thinks of disabilities, the images that first come to mind are those of some sort of physical impairment. This is a misleading stereotype, as the majority of those who have a disability and are enrolled in a higher-learning institution are suffering from some form of learning disability. Yet physical disabilities are not limited to actual visible impairments: They encompass a wide range of disabilities, including heart conditions, alcoholism, and arthritis. (Miller 140-141)

Those students that do fall under the provisions of the ADA have had to have been either treated for or diagnosed with conditions that result in some level of physical impairment. (ADA: Section II) The college or university has to have been made aware of this condition and to have acknowledged the student as being disabled. This process does not have had to occur at the time of admission, yet for the ADA to be activated the college must be informed about the student's condition and have acknowledged its existence. If this has not happened, the student is not eligible for inter-collegiate athletics under the provisions of the ADA.

While the ADA does not address how and when a student may participate in an athletic program, most of the institutions themselves do. The majority of colleges and universities that have inter-collegiate teams require that the student undergo a medical examination by a physician or nurse employed by the school. Should the student be unfit to participate in sports, the examiner is required to decline their admission to the program.

This examination is not a discriminatory process. Students, whether they are disabled or not, are under the general protection of the school. Should something happen to the student that was avoidable, the school is liable. Thus, while a student signs a waver excusing the school should they become seriously injured on the field or in the arena, such injuries are anticipated as a part of sports. Yet should a student collapse because they were allowed to play sports even though they had a serious heart condition, the school is then at fault. Therefore, all medical examinations are to ensure that those students who do participate in inter-collegiate athletics will not hurt themselves as a result of their disabilities.

This results in a fine line between discrimination and unwillingness to accept liability for a student. Take the example of a visually impaired student who wants to play football. The student might be in perfect health and might be able to see to a certain extent, but the college doubts whether the student would be able to play under the conditions found on a football field. The college must then make a decision as to whether to allow the student to play. Should the student play and become injured as a result of his disability, the college is at fault for allowing him to play. Yet not allowing him to play for the same reason might qualify as discrimination, as the student is fit in all other ways.

The ADA is therefore considered a double-edged act, where those places that are targeted as discriminatory are perhaps only trying to uphold their best interests in excluding the disabled. This is obviously much less true in the office than in collegiate sports, where there is less inherent danger. However, the college has to try to see which is more valuable… the welfare of the student or the threat of a discriminatory lawsuit. The welfare of the student almost always is of the highest importance, yet colleges are nevertheless frightened of a possible lawsuit.

A journalist named Kathi Wolfe, who has been visually impaired for her entire life, summed up this potential ability to press charges on grounds of discrimination in saying:

" I used to dream of a law that would dispel prejudice toward folks like me. Now, despite the good it does, the ADA is becoming a nightmare. If people don't stop using it to clog up the courts and excuse incompetence, the Americans With Disabilities Act will wind up reinforcing the discrimination it was designed to eradicate." (Wolfe: C1)

Mental Disabilities

The ADA has recently gained media attention due to the recent settlement between the Justice Department and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). This settlement was reached after standards regarding the acceptance of incoming freshmen to most state universities was met with testing for learning disabilities. Such testing was found to be discriminatory and therefore illegal. These eligibility requirements were targeted to find students that primarily suffered from dyslexia and other reading disabilities. These standards were long maintained by the NCAA, to the point where the U.S. government decided to address this organization on the grounds of abject discrimination.

"Thirteen years ago the people who run intercollegiate sports set out to get a handle on the problem of undereducated — and occasionally even illiterate — college athletes by setting national academic standards that students would have to meet to participate in varsity sports during their freshman year. It was a good thing to do, but since then, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has learned that setting standards isn't as easy as it might seem. The NCAA has been accused of, among other things, meddling in high school curriculums (because of its rules on what courses athletes are to take) and of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act (on grounds the standards discriminated against students with learning disabilities)". (Post: A16)

It was felt that those students who wanted to go on from high school to pursue a college sports scholarship would need to take certain classes in order to fulfill the initial requirements of the college of their choice. However, students who suffered from learning disabilities, yet who still wanted to attend college, were limited in their academics. Because of the standards set by the NCAA, students that had any form of learning problem were therefore automatically passed over by the NCAA select board.

Incoming freshmen were the foremost target of such practices. While these students could excel at certain aspects of academics, their shortcomings automatically excluded them from the team. Many students who entered a particular college or university based solely on their inter-collegiate athletics program found themselves not even considered for the team.

One student at Lynn University claimed that the school kept her off of the softball team because her SAT scores were below the average. (Cushing: C2) Ginger Wortley suffers from perceptual impairment, or a reading disability similar to dyslexia, where taking official coded tests is almost impossible. However, these coded tests are not a measure of her intelligence as Wortley is above the curve on IQ. Her lawyer states that:

"Given this kind of disability, the worst thing that you can have is something like an SAT, which is just an enormous row of little bubbles and page after page of tightly spaced, intentionally challengingly worded text,"

"Everyone agrees that if she had been given it orally, she certainly would have surpassed the SAT score requirement." (Ibid.)

Wortley's case, among others, were those that inspired the Justice Department to investigate the fairness found in the NCAA's testing procedures. In light of obviously intelligent students who were restricted from team or athletic play due to a learning disabilities, the Justice Department did extensive research into the case. They found that students were excluded from the team who had all manners of learning disabilities, from dyslexia to "test anxiety" (Autman: E1)

In May of 1998, the Justice Department determined that the NCAA was deliberately using these tests and academic standards to exclude certain individuals that the NCAA thought were unfit for their teams. It was found that not only were those students who suffered from learning disabilities targeted, but that AfricanAmerican and Latino students were also targeted. (Wolfe: C1) The NCAA was found to have used discrimination processes to keep every incoming freshmen they thought was "unfit" off of their teams. This was done through the ability to manipulate the test scores to demonstrate that almost any student who did not score within a certain percentage could be suffering from a learning disability. The NCAA took these results and applied them to those students they did not want to have on their teams.

The Justice Department determined that this was against the ADA, as well as several other anti-discrimination acts, and ordered the NCAA to change its policies on accepting incoming freshmen. Now, the NCAA's eligibility requirements include special education programs. However, this type of class will only count towards eligibility only if the high school has provided instruction to the learning disabled students that is comparable to all other students in the same school. (Ibid.) This means that the learning disabled students must have similar mental abilities (i.e. be as intelligent) as their classmates, and are only not able to compete academically due to their disability.


It is obvious that the Americans Disabilities Act has had a positive impact on the lives of the disabled. It has removed the discriminatory practices that were found in both the workplace and in much of general society.

However, in terms of inter-collegiate athletics, the ADA has had varied effects. Many of the changes initiated by the ADA are difficult to apply to sports, especially when it appears that the health of the athlete might be negatively impacted. There is a fine line between enabling a physically disabled athlete and placing him or her into danger.

For students who suffer from mental disabilities, most commonly found in the educational system in the form of learning disabilities, discrimination in athletics presents a different sort of challenge. Here, students who suffer from learning disabilities have until recently been kept from participating in sports due to a series of test and grade standards imposed by the NCAA. (San Diego Union-Tribune: C4) These tests were found to be discriminatory in nature, and designed to keep certain students from participating in sports.

The future of the ADA in relation to inter-collegiate athletics isn't known, nor can it be predicted. As the ADA currently stands, it will possibly take a landmark ruling to affect its formation in any way. This occurred in the NCAA/Justice Department verdict in 1998. It is not expected to occur at any time in the near future, as all pending athletics cases do not appear of the type to set precedent.

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  • Americans with Disabilities Act Handbook. Published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice. October 1991.
  • Autman, Samuel. "Courts ponder a response to test anxiety". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. January 4, 1998, Sunday. Pg. E1.
  • Blumner, Robyn. "The high cost of complete equality: freedom". Journal of Commerce. December 28, 1999, Tuesday. p6.
  • Chambers, Marcia. "An Athlete Challenges a Stealthy Rule". The New York Times. November 19, 1997, Wednesday. pg B11.
  • Cushing, Doran. "Player sues over SAT". St. Petersburg Times. February 28, 1998, Saturday. pg. 2C
  • Hodge, Samuel R. "Prospective Physical Education Teachers' Attitudes Toward Teaching Students with Disabilities". Physical Educator. Vol 55. No. 2. Spring 1998. p68-77
  • Miller, Richard I. Major American Higher Education Issues and Challenges in the 21st Century. Published by the Higher Education Policy Series. No. 42.
  • "ADA reaches into athletics". The San Diego Union-Tribune. June 07, 1998, Sunday. pg C4
  • "Students and athletes". The Washington Post. March 15, 1999, Monday. pg A16.
  • Wolfe, Kathi. "Handicapped by a Law That Helps". The Washington Post. July 26, 1998, Sunday, pgC1 

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