Friends of Adejah Nesbitt, 15, describe her as a loud, outgoing teenager who wants to dance and have fun.
So when the sophomore decided she wanted to be a part of the T.W. Josey Comprehensive High School cheerleading team, nothing was going to hold her back – especially not her autism.
Like her 11 teammates on the junior varsity squad, Adejah cheers at games and spends three hours after school every day practicing during basketball season. But while other girls twirl through the air or perform more complicated moves, Adejah stands back waving her pom-poms, proving students with disabilities can bring a special component to high school sports.
“She really adds compassion to the team,” said Jonay Bailey, Josey’s JV and varsity cheerleading coach. “She loves the girls, and they take good care of her. They walk with her to the bathroom; they help her get dressed. She hugs everybody before she leaves … and she doesn’t like a lot of fussing, so they tend to get along better in her presence.”
The federal government has launched an effort to include more students with disabilities in school sports. After the Government Accountability Office published a report highlighting benefits that come from including students with special needs, the Education Department last month clarified legal requirements that school districts have in offering the same opportunity to participate for all students.
When it comes to preventing discrimination and keeping an open door for all students, Richmond County school officials said the district is meeting all requirements, and then some.
“Richmond County is on target,” said Talithia Newsome, the district’s director for special education. “Our students have
participated in basketball, football, band. They’ve gotten scholarships in those areas. You can’t exclude anybody from participating.”
The department’s guidelines, focused on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, state that a district must provide a qualified student with a disability with the same opportunity to benefit from a program
as those without disabilities.
For sports that require a certain skill level or ability to play, students with disabilities are not guaranteed a spot on the team but must be given the same chance to participate as other students.
For example, a coach can not deny a student with a learning disability a chance to play on the lacrosse team based on a stereotype or assumption made before seeing the student’s ability.
A district must also provide reasonable modifications for athletes with disabilities, according to the department. If an athlete born with one hand has the swimming ability to make the team but can not perform the “two-hand touch” in the pool at the end of a competition, the district must accept an alternative signal as long as it does not provide an unfair advantage.
Richmond County Athletic Director George Bailey said special needs athletes are on many teams in Augusta schools. These students range from those with emotional or learning disabilities to physical ones.
“Every time a coach chooses a team, it shouldn’t always be the 15 best players,” said Bailey, who is the father of the Josey cheerleading coach. “The decision should consist of how that kid could be helped, what is he or she going to get from it? I’ve known coaches to choose kids because they need a father figure.”
For students whose disabilities prevent them from playing more physically demanding sports, the district provides an adaptive sports program for wheelchair basketball and handball, and track and field.
Adaptive Sports Coordinator Kristy Olive said participation in those teams has dwindled over the years, partially because of students moving away and also because of a perceived stigma. Today there are just four adaptive sports players, not enough to make up the five required to play wheelchair basketball.
“I think sometimes students don’t want to be perceived that way, and their parents don’t want them perceived that way either,” Olive said. “But as long as they’re involved and active, that’s what’s important.”
For Adejah, friends say there is no stigma to worry about. Though her mother, Schonta Gay-Nesbitt, said there are the occasional sneers about her daughter from spectators at games, Adejah is a staple of Josey’s team like any other girl.
Franisha Williams, a sophomore at Josey, helped push teachers and coaches to include Adejah on the team and said she hopes more students with special needs will be seen out on the courts and fields.
“Sometimes (students with disabilities) don’t get the same opportunity as other students,” Franisha said. “I’m
just waiting for my chance to help someone else.”