Jordan wrestler an example of what U.S. Department of Education hopes to accomplish with 'landmark' directive

Published: Friday, Jan. 25 2013 9:00 p.m. MST

Alex Maughan, top, has a playful wrestling match with Jordan High School wrestler Matthew Vierkaat, during a break in a wrestling meet at Jordan High School in Sandy, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. At right, Jordan wrestler Wayne Austin calls for the pin.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SANDY — Alex Maughan isn't going to help the Jordan wrestling team win any titles.

But what the 16-year-old sophomore adds to the team — and to the lives of the young wrestlers — is immeasurable.

"He's really fun," said senior Michael Neddo, an academic all-state wrestler. "He brings a lot more energy and excitement to the team. He makes it a more fun environment. His attitude (is his best contribution), because at practice we work hard, and we forget about the fun part of playing a sport. He brings that back to it."

Natalie Maughan never expected what happened when she emailed Jordan head wrestling coach Chris Babinski and asked if Alex, who has Down syndrome and Type 1 diabetes, could participate in his wrestling class for a few minutes each day.

"He's a very active little man," said Maughan. "He's good at sports. Maybe he can't tell you what one plus one is, but he can dribble a basketball and shoot really well."

She said her son didn't understand why it was inappropriate to tackle or jump on other people. Her hope was that if Alex was allowed to participate in the wrestling class, she could use it as incentive to get him to behave at home.

"I have a 16-year-old with a 3-year-old brain," she said. "He's getting too big for me to manhandle; I thought if I could tell him, when he tried to wrestle people at home, 'Hey, we only wrestle in class,' he would learn where that behavior is appropriate." She was shocked when Babinski suggested he come out for the Beetdigger wrestling team that following Monday.

"I honestly thought it was a joke," she said. "I didn't think that was a possibility. He can wrestle, but he doesn't know any moves. Coach said, 'That's what practice is for.' He was on the team from that point on."

Babinski said he's had student-athletes with a variety of disabilities — from emotional issues to physical disabilities. And in his 22 years as a coach, he's always tried to include students any way they can.

But not every public school is as accommodating as Jordan High, although most Utah schools are. In some states, disabled students have sued over the right to participate in high school athletics. Friday, the U.S. Department of Education issued what some are calling a "landmark" directive stating that access to interscholastic, intramural and intercollegiate athletics is a civil right.

"Sports can provide invaluable lessons in discipline, selflessness, passion and courage, and this guidance will help schools ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to benefit from the life lessons they can learn on the playing field or on the court," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement announcing the new guidance Friday.

While national education leaders and advocates for the disabled hailed the new directive, which seems to add sports to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, local school officials aren't sure much will change.

"There is no change in the law," said Mark Van Wagoner, attorney for the Utah High School Activities Association. "This is something we've done and followed for as long as I can remember. It's a re-emphasis as far as I can tell. We've always tried to accommodate students under (Section) 504, and this won't change that."

He said just this fall, the UHSAA allowed some golfers to use a cart in order to accommodate them in tournaments. Schools have received special accommodations for a variety of athletes — from deaf football players to blind runners.