Administrators unsure how new federal guidelines for handicapped will affect traditional school sports

Albany defensive end Eddie Delaney (96), who played Albany defensive end Eddie Delaney (96), who played for Sachem East high school, plays without a left hand. (Nov. 26, 2011) Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

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Long Island high school sports administrators are waiting to see what impact new federal guidelines giving students with disabilities a fair shot to play on traditional sports teams will have on their programs. The guidelines were released Friday.

"There has to be a lot of dialogue about what this means and what we will be asked to do," said Ed Cinelli, Suffolk County executive director of interscholastic sports.

"Generally speaking, in New York state, disabled students participate on teams and schools accommodate them," said Nina Van Erk, Nassau County executive director of interscholastic sports who previously held the same position for the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association. "We'll have to wait to receive direction from the [federal] education department and from the state."

Cinelli and Van Erk pointed to programs already in place that offer athletic opportunities for physically challenged athletes. There is a monthly schedule of Athletics for the Challenged events in sports such as cross country, soccer, bowling, basketball, floor hockey, track and field and softball. "I'd say we have 15 to 18 schools regularly participating in our monthly sports days," said Dan Robinson, assistant director at Brentwood High School who runs the program. "And we're always looking for more."

In Nassau, there are events planned for disabled athletes in bowling and golf. "Students with disabilities are being accommodated on various levels," Van Erk said.

Historically, that has also been true on Long Island. Double-leg amputee wrestler Rohan Murphy of East Islip reached the Suffolk County finals in 2000 and went on to earn three varsity letters at Penn State. Eddie Delaney, who was born without a left hand, achieved football stardom at Sachem East and later as a defensive end at the University at Albany where he earned all-conference honors in 2010 and 2011.

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Van Erk noted that accommodations have been made throughout the state in sports such as bowling, swimming and track. Bowlers compete with wheelchairs. Disabled swimmers are allowed in-pool starts. Hearing-impaired runners are given visual start signals. She recalled a "one-armed varsity basketball player from Westchester who was really good."

The guidelines did not specify what measures need to be taken, other than to state that student-athletes with disabilities who want to play could join traditional school teams if officials can make "reasonable modifications" to accommodate them.

The federal Department of Education said that if those adjustments would fundamentally alter a sport or give an athlete an advantage, it would direct the school to create parallel athletic programs.