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Breaking a boundary

Conference opens doors to athletes with disabilities

Athletes like Illinois’ Gail Gaeng will have new opportunities to compete under the ECAC’s inclusive sports strategy. Stephen Nowland / NCAA Photos

The future of athletes with disabilities competing in NCAA competitions was just starting to crystallize when NCAA Champion magazine wrote about it two years ago in “Boundless Determination,” published in the winter 2013 issue. In recent years, students with disabilities have sued their high schools to create more access to varsity athletics, opening new doors in states across the country. It was only a matter of time before they started seeking out the same opportunities in college.

Just two years later, the Eastern College Athletic Conference has created the first opportunity in an NCAA-sanctioned conference for those athletes to compete in varsity college sports. The league announced in January that its board of directors had approved an inclusive sport strategy that will provide reasonable accommodations for those athletes to compete in existing events, and will add adaptive-sports events to the league’s championships lineup.

In other words, athletes with disabilities at ECAC schools could soon be racing and scoring points for their teams in a 100-meter dash wheelchair racing event at the ECAC track and field championships, or competing for an ECAC wheelchair tennis title. Events could start as early as next year. And though the timetable is yet to be determined as funding and other logistics are determined, the commitment alone is pioneering.

“The response has been amazing,” ECAC President and CEO Kevin McGinniss said. “There are a lot of people who want to see this succeed. We’re not shooting in the dark.”

Proponents of adaptive sports have predicted such a reaction. The news release announcing the strategy set a record for hits on the ECAC’s website. ESPN ran the news on its crawler. And emails from parents of children with disabilities have poured in, lauding the announcement while telling McGinniss that their kids were now considering ECAC member schools as their top college choices.

McGinniss believes the ECAC is an ideal starting point. The league has long held a niche as a provider of championships and league competition for schools whose conferences don’t sponsor all of their sports, such as hockey and synchronized swimming. For years the league has effectively managed a diverse sports lineup for a membership of 300 schools from all three divisions. That expertise, McGinniss believes, positions it nicely as a bridge that can lead adaptive sports into major college athletics.