The Sporting Public – by Mark DiDonato

A little less than four months have passed since packing up and moving to Tallahassee.  The trip from Baltimore to Florida was long, but has so far proven to be worth it.  Since arriving on New Year’s Day, we’ve utilized several of the local parks the city manages.  Every Saturday morning, I play in an informal baseball league at one of two public ball fields where I’ve met new friends and glorified my childhood dreams.  My girlfriend and I have taken our dog, JD, to Tom Brown Park where she’s had an opportunity to run free for an hour and play with other dogs.  Along with our roommate Jordan and his dog, we’ve gone on hikes through nature trails.  I’ve looked into playing organized flag football, softball, and even kickball through a city run adult league.  The city offers a “Teen-Center” for teenage development and youth sports leagues in soccer, baseball, and basketball, to name a few.  The list of activities, community centers, and parks goes on and on and on.

However, as I “surfed” the talgov.org site, I found myself a bit aggravated.  One of two things hit a nerve; I am either behind on my technological skills (and search skills) or Tallahassee doesn’t offer organized sport for those with a disability or those with mental or development disorders.  So, naturally, I thought back to the liberal city I just moved away from.  My experiences with Baltimore during the five years I lived in the city convinced me the local government just HAD to offer some sort of publicly funded and organized league for children with autism or a wheelchair basketball league.   Again my search skills were either appalling or Baltimore doesn’t have anything to offer either.  My curiosity brought me to the Vineland department of Recreation website.  I grew up in Vineland and worked for the Recreation Department from age 15 to 21.  My old supervisor has since retired, but I wondered if the new administration had created a league or two for those who are not considered the “physical norm.”  As the trends predicted, they still offered only public sport to able-bodied participants.

My cousin Jenny, a sign-language interpreter for a public school in New Jersey, had her first child eight years ago.  By a year old, the doctor’s were 90% sure he was autistic. By two years old, he was officially labeled as having autism.  Today, John is far from a self-functioning child.  He is learning how to verbally communicate his wants and needs (or perhaps his displeasures). “John, John, Super-John” is learning to read and write and Jenny has even taught him some basic sign language.  He plays with toys that challenge him mentally and enjoys kicking a soccer ball.

John is an active child and deserves the same opportunities as all children his age.  John has taken swimming lessons, plays soccer, baseball, and basketball, and is learning to play the piano.  The swimming lessons occur one-on-one and are quite costly to find a person trained in not only the swimming technicalities but also in working with children with autism and to rent a facility.  The soccer league he plays in was started by a father who has two sons with aspergers.  He started the league when he was unable to find a local organization for his children to play in.  Challenger Baseball, a national organization, hosts the baseball game, but John finds the sport “boring” as he is standing around too long.

Local or state government recreation departments are often funded through public tax dollars and should accommodate everyone equally.  Through public funding, they are able to offer financial assistance for families with financial dependency, offer publicly managed ball fields, and help offset the cost of equipment, coaches, and officials.  The three government funded recreation departments mentioned earlier offer the following blurbs on their websites:

“In the Division of Youth and Adult Sports, you will find a program suited to your needs. The Division promotes the whole individual, good sportsmanship and an environment that is both fun and competitive.” (baltimorecity.gov)

“The Recreation Department is resolved to enhance and cultivate recreational activities within the City of Vineland.” (vinelandcity.org)

“Recreational opportunities continue to be an important part of our Community. The goals of the Tallahassee Parks and Recreation Department are to provide worthwhile leisure programs for citizens of all ages and a well maintained parks system.” (talgov.com)

The government, in supporting ALL of the people who live in a common space, should offer some sort of league, support, or direction.  I’ve always understood the government to make the best decisions that help the majority of the people; however, I feel like there is something more these public entities can offer.  I’m not suggesting they spend all of their budgets, which have been slashed tremendously during the latest recession, however at the very least, they could offer links from their public recreation websites to private organizations such as Challenger Baseball or a local basketball league like the two links I’ve attached at the end.

Local governments could also help offset the costs for private lessons.  I’ve been talking with Jenny on facebook recently and in her last message, after talking about all that John has been involved in, she said the following: “I had to set up reward system for him. I had to pay full price for that too. I need to make more money haha.”  Obviously, working through a public school interpreter’s salary (and her husband John’s salary) they aren’t living in poverty, but the cost of raising a child with autism, and a second child, Reagan, is astronomical.  Recent research has suggested the cost of raising a child with autism could exceed $3 million and those figures include private training or instruction which is often required for athletes with autism.

All in all, local governments need to reanalyze exactly what they’re offering and who they are accommodating with public funds.  They have an opportunity to give back to those raising a child with not only autism, but any mental or physical disability which prevents nontraditional able-bodied athletes from physical activity and a social setting.

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11 thoughts on “The Sporting Public – by Mark DiDonato

  1. I totally agree with your stance on equal play for all interested in participating in sports. If the state is willing to pump money into funding games and events for one group of individuals they should be willing to do it for those with different abilities as well. As for Tallahassee there are some opportunities for those with different abilities.
    I used to volunteer a lot at Gretchen Everhart (the local special needs school), especially with their physical education and Special Olympics program. To participate in the Special Olympics there is no cost whatsoever to the participating athletes and the school/volunteer coaches hold many practices and events throughout the year to prepare their athletes.

    The following lists the events the athletes can choose to participate in:
    • Official Spring Sports: Track & Field, Bocce, Cycling, Horseshoe Pitching, Shuffleboard, Soccer, Tennis, Unified Soccer and Tennis Doubles, Volleyball
    • Official Summer Sports: Aquatics, Golf, Partners Golf, Softball, Unified Softball,
    • Official Indoor Sports: Basketball, Bowling, Equestrian, Gymnastics, Powerlifting, Roller Skating, Unified Bowling and Basketball

    While I understand this is different from playing in a league it does give these children and young adults something to look forward to. When I would coach tennis the kids loved it, every moment, even practice. I truly believe that everyone should have the chance to participate in sports and hopefully there will be more chances for competitive league play in the future.
    Below are two links for the Special Olympics in Tallahassee. There will an event this weekend at Leon High School, and anyone interested should look into volunteering to make this day even more special for the participating athletes.

    http://www.specialolympicsflorida.org/component/eventlist/details/1129-area-3-summer-games

    http://www.tallahassee.com/article/20120402/NEWS/120402007/Annual-law-enforcement-Special-Olympics-Tuesday-morning?odyssey=tab%7Ctopnews%7Ctext%7Cfrontpage

  2. To be honest, I didn’t care much about the sports or sport organizations concerning about disability or those with mental or development disorders, except for the Special Olympics. I don’t think such person like me who ignores the disadvantaged groups should be blamed, however it is indeed everyone’s responsibility, especially the government’s duty to organize and promote special activity, sport event, or build more facilities for the disadvantaged people.
    In my previous view, I do not really understand where the revenue comes from in women’s activity, or event for disability, even though it is according to Title IX that everyone should have equal opportunity and treatment in sport participation, training, and competition. It is so dilemma for the sponsors and organizers, in my mind, that they cannot make profits from these events directly, or even indirectly.
    Nevertheless, I think government, including both national and local ones, sponsorships, organizers should work together and make this more profitable for organizers, more promotional for sponsorships, and more economical for government. For now and for me, I cannot find out a way to be beneficial for every part, but I am sure it is not just one or two part’s duty to continue doing these for the disadvantaged groups.

    1. While I understand your viewpoint Shuai, that you cannot see where any revenue or profit would come from between female sports and sport for people who are disabled, this is not exactly about making money. Individuals who have disabilities cannot help that they cannot participate among those who are able bodied. As a government sector that is funded by the public through taxes, it is their responsibility to make sure that there is something available for everyone who wishes to participate. While I am unfamiliar with the specific situation in Tallahassee, I would have to imagine that if an adequate number of people came forward and requested that a league be started for those who are either mentally or physically disabled, that the city would have to do something. Informal leagues within the city of Tallahassee aren’t strictly about making a profit. People pay taxes to live here and should be able to take advantage of all the different activities the city offers.
      I also agree with the previous post, that the website should at least list events that these children or even adults with disabilities can participate in, even if they are not directly connected or associated with the city. I understand if it is a matter of being funded that the city cannot afford to hire the right coaches with proper training to help with these children with disabilities – it would obviously be difficult to have a team without a properly trained coach to handle certain issues. However, there should definitely be some kind of information regarding any opportunities that take place within the city. It is essential to provide those who cannot participate in able-bodied sports every opportunity to play and participate should they have the desire to.

  3. A child with a disability is someone else’s problem, until it becomes a issue for your family. Either as a parent, an uncle (like Mark) or other family member or friend. I absolutely believe that sport opportunities should be available for children with disabilities, and not just the Special Olympics. My grandson was born pre-mature, and will continue to have issues with breathing and eating. (his esphagus was not attached to his stomach at birth). But through multiple surgeries and trips to Sacred Heart and 3 months in the Neo-natal intensive care unit, where we almost lost him, one begins to realize how many children are in this country that are not the physical norm. We stayed at the Ronald McDonald House quite often during his trips to Pensacola, and came into contact with families that had children with multiple disabilities.

    Often it is the parents of a child with a disability that brings the issue to light within their community. Finding a way to utilize a normal field with upgrades that can be taken down and re-installed would be an excellent way to deal with some of those issues. I know in Panama City, at Frank Brown Park their is a dedicated baseball field for participants that want to play who are in a wheelchair, the surface is made of a special material that helps the chairs to move easier.

    Education about disabilities and those who have them is still limited. Better educating the non-disabled public could go a long way in obtaining funds for facilities.

  4. I agree with having links available for disabled/disadvantaged play should be available on city public websites. But I have to play devils advocate here on public funding for various disabled leagues. It would be extremely difficult to organize and fund leagues and sports for ALL disabled youths/adults in any given city. There are hundreds of disabilities and towns/cities do not have the capital to fund all such programs. If you fund a few, what about the ones that are being left out? The blind, the deaf, paraplegics, downs-syndrome , other forms of mental retardation? I’m not saying we shouldn’t have programs to be available, my niece 17 years old is severely autistic and still has trouble forming speech, she participates in the Special Olympics within her state. Often times you have to go to the organization to find where special needs programs are offered. That is what the organizations are there for. It requires extra effort, but parents of children with disabilities are not strangers to putting in extra effort, that’s for sure,

    I agree that someone from the Tallahassee gov. website could provide some links for programs in the state, but as for creating new programs in a struggling economy, that just doesn’t seem like a sound plan at all. Non- profits, such as the Special Olympics are the way to go. Most public schools also have special needs programs where children are getting exercise and play. I don’t agree that the responsibility lays on a city to provide disability leagues. Moreover, sheer numbers could prove to be troublesome. How many autistic children in the city of Tallahassee want to join a baseball league? What if they wanted to play basketball? Would there be enough children to compose a full league of every sport? Do you pick just one?

    It is a serious issue indeed, and I do not have any answers, I do however, have opinions. Lots of opinions, which seem to lean in favor of non-profits being in charge of disabled programs and funding, rather than cities that have more than enough debt on their plates as it is.

  5. I agree with you on the topic of having links on the websites of towns and cities is important to meet the needs of the disadvantaged/disabled. While I also agree that it is very important to provide the opportunity for disabled people to particpate in the sports and activities of their choosing, it would be extremely difficult to fund all of these sports for every town to be able to equally represent. The idea is practical, but not ultimately feasible in the economy we are currently in.

    Having a disability was not brought on to a disabled person by choice. Given the opportunity to be treated like a normal person is something many of them dream off. Being able to provide the opportunity to play sports and participate in these activities is the least that these towns can do to give them that right. Now, while accommodating everyone and every sport may not be feasible, putting forth the effort is what matters and doing a better job with that is what needs to be done by these towns. The Tallahassee.gov website can certainly do a better job of providing more links on the website of the programs that are offered in the state currently. After exploring the website myself, I too found it difficult to find information relating to these programs and how people could find out that information more readily and easily. When looking to create new programs though, the issue of the economy is something that comes into play as I mentioned above. With the struggling economy as it is currently, to add more programs is something that could take away money from other needs that the town might need to invest in. Towns are struggling enough on their own and at the end of the day, they are going to decide to put the money where they need it the most to meet their already over-flowing issues.

    I agree with your thoughts that overall, local governments need to reanalyze exactly what they’re offering and who they are accommodating with the public funds that they have to begin with. They can choose to give back to a person with a disability to give them that opportunity to have a chance to be treated like a normal person or they can choose to disperse their money elsewhere to a less notable cause. Effort does need to be made to increase awareness of these special needs programs by cities and towns, but how much is needed? That is a question that is up to the individual towns to decide on their own terms.

    1. It comes as a shock to me to hear that government funded recreation departments in Tallahassee are only offering activities for able-bodied individuals. As noted, this is an issue not only in Tallahassee but probably around the country. Taking a diversity in sport course, I learned a lot about the rights and privileges that individuals suffering from mental or physical handicaps should have. The knowledge gained from this course is the reason behind my shock. With so many rules and regulations for accommodating the handicapped in the workplace, sport and all types of facilities, I would assume that recreational departments would give the opportunity to participate in sport and exercise activities to all, accommodating those that are not able-bodied.

      Funding this venture poses a problem, I understand. However, I feel that parents and guardians of the individuals with mental or physical disabilities would not have a problem footing some the cost. If there not opportunity for a child or family member to play sports in their community, it can probably be found that the parents have purchased equipment to keep them active. The biggest funding issue would come into play when looking at the space (field, court, etc.) needed to play the sport or perform the exercise. This is where I think the government should re-examine exactly where they are filtering their money when it comes to recreation.

      The Special Olympics and Paralympics should be heavily considered when thinking about investing in community sporting activities for the mentally and physically disabled. Aside from the fact that funding such an opportunity would increase the sense of community along with a healthy, active lifestyle, there could be more in store for certain individuals. Supporting and funneling participants to the Special Olympics and Paralympics should be a concern. Without places for the non-able bodied to learn sport and participate, how will these global events continue to succeed? The government should think of this as a grassroots effort to have as many handicapped or disabled people involved in community recreation programs as those that are able-bodied.

  6. This quickly becomes an of how much government should be involved with society. In my opinion, the individuals of the community should be the ones providing programming and activities for people who live with disabilities. This is not realistically how our society works, therefore, the government ends up with the responsibility of bridging the gap. It would be nice if we lived in a world where everyone took care of each other, and we didn’t have to rely on “government” to tell us what to do all of the time.

    Getting back to the issue at hand, spending government funding on creating programs for disabled people comes with all sorts of problems. These problems can be worked around, but everyone will never be happy or accommodated. The first problem, which is something that the Paralympics has been dealing with for years, is how do we make the playing field even among disabled people so that the competition is interesting and exciting. I understand that this may not be as important in a community, compared to the worlds second largest sporting event, but never the less people will quickly become disinterested if the gap between abilities is too great. I think it would be more beneficial for the local government to come up with activities for people with severe mental and physical disabilities. This would keep simplicity to the activities, and provide an atmosphere where even a very dependent individual can participate in some type of sport. For the disabled athletes that can function with the help of a prosthesis or other supportive device, they should be encouraged to play in the same leagues as able-bodied participants. When I was performing my internship with the US Olympic Committee I spent a large amount of my time with Paralympic athletes, especially swimmers. The majority, if not all of them, grew up swimming with everyone else. They did not desire to have a special league or organization that would tailor to them, they just wanted to be treated like the rest of the swimmers. Through this they developed into elite athletes and developed the skills to compete as the best in the world. My point is that it gets difficult when you encompass disability as one word without taking into account the varying levels of physical and mental disability.

  7. The initial blog posting is one that initially reminded me of the Florida State Sport Management “Dr. M Dianne Murphy Distinguished Lecture Series” in which Donna Lopiano, PH.D. paid the program a visit at the end of March. Considered one of the most knowledgeable persons in the field of gender equity in sport, apart from being an advocate for women she has also been integral to school districts, universities & colleges, as well as state education agencies on Title IX compliance/equity compliance and to non-profit organizations on governance and strategic planning. Although the premise of the lecture was centered on gender inequality in the world of sports, she brought up the very issue at hand- equal opportunities for all to participate in sports, regardless of the background, sex or disability. We are in a society which is geared towards progression. Gender-neutral views, the “disappearance of gender discrimination” can all be attributed to the legislature for institutions that were receiving federal funding. We have been able to see slow, but steady change in the gender makeup of high schools, and high education institutions but when it comes to equality even at the community recreational level for these individuals, it seems that there is none. A native of the greater Philadelphia area, I grew up watching and becoming a dedicated fan of the Philadelphia Phillies. From my involvement as a fan of the team I learned about old-time pitcher, Jamie. Along with his wife, Jaime Moyer developed The Moyer Foundation, with a main mission to provide comfort and support to children enduring profound physical, emotional or financial distress. Although it is regional, I feel that this not for profit is a great example for ways a city could implement, if not an entire rec league, but a week-long camp for children with special/different needs.

  8. I absolutely agree that the sports programs available for all athletes should be on the website. It is important that all abilities are represented on the website. I will say that in the city of Tallahassee the miracle league has been an encouraging start up for children with disabilities. It is important that the City of Tallahassee understand that you noticed that there was nothing on their website that could direct you to where to find this information. Having a disability should not discourage you from participating in recreational leagues. Of all things you should be encouraged by the city to use venues designed to help people with your disability. Searching a website for hours trying to find a place where you can participate can discourage athletes with disabilities to participate. Participating in recreation activities is a part of being a part of the city. A person with disabilities should feel included in the city’s activities. We have the ADA rules for places of business and schools why wouldn’t we have accommodations in our recreational areas. After being able to volunteer with the miracle league of Tallahassee and seeing what kind of extraordinary athletes they have it is hard to believe that there isn’t a lot of information about what they offer.

  9. I believe that people with disabilities should be offered equal opportunities. The question the question that comes to mind is as follows: What would equal opportunities pertain to? We should definitely empathize with people with disabilities, but in reality how many able body citizens are there compared to those with disabilities? If equal opportunities equate to fair opportunities then we could consider allocating a percentage of funds to provide programs and facilities for citizens with disabilities equal to the percentage of citizens with disabilities within the community. Would this solve the issue?

    I think more than providing funds and building facilities to accommodate those with disabilities is needed. I believe what people with disabilities need is the general public to be better educated about such people, and caring individuals willing to dedicate time and effort to assist these individuals. The government has many responsibilities and obligations but limited funds. I agree that there needs to be interest in supporting citizens with disabilities, yet all of the responsibility should not rest with the government. The people of the community should strive to support each other, therefore when it comes to athletic opportunities for those with individuals, if there are not any government offered programs or facilities, the community should develop and operate such programs and facilities.

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