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June 5, 2004

Ethics: Sharing info about a child's special needs

From: Salt Lake Tribune, UT - Jun 5, 2004

By Jeffrey L. Seglin The New York Times

For 10 years, Jim Abbott was a successful major league pitcher whose feats included pitching a no-hitter for the Yankees in 1993. Before that he won a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic baseball team and received a Sullivan Award as America's best amateur athlete.

By all accounts, Abbott's parents encouraged their son in his athletic endeavors as a child -- in spite of the fact that he was born with only one hand.

Abbott's remarkable career, and the fact that from an early age he was able to dispel any preconceived ideas about a one-handed pitcher, came to mind after I received a letter from Pam Dippold of Columbus, Ohio.

"My daughter is deaf," she wrote. "It's legal, but is it ethical to leave out this information when I call to sign her up for a sports team or club?"

In a subsequent telephone conversation, Dippold told me that her 18-year-old daughter has been playing on volleyball teams for the past eight years.

"I don't want coaches to have preconceived notions about her abilities," she said, explaining why she never mentions that the girl is deaf when she enrolls her in a program.

Once her daughter is assigned to a team or group, Dippold shows up to help interpret for her. She wonders if she's been throwing coaches "a curve ball" by doing this.

Most sports organizations for kids encourage parents to let them know about any special needs.

"It's better to let volunteers know ahead of time so coaches can make arrangements to make it the best experience possible," says Christopher Downs, the media relations manager for Little League Baseball.

Sometimes a child's differences can evoke hurtful reactions from peers. Mike Johnston, a rookie pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, suffers from involuntary twitches caused by Tourette's Syndrome. He was reportedly teased so much about the tics in school that he dropped out at 15.

Dippold says her daughter has never been teased or denied a fair shot on the court. She decided not to disclose the girl's deafness simply for fear of prejudice.

"It never crossed my mind that they might be able to make accommodations if I called ahead to tell them she was deaf," Dippold says.

Had Dippold asked me eight years ago, I would have told her that alerting coaches in advance is the right thing to do. And that is exactly what I'd say today to a parent in the same situation.

Coaches who are armed with information about young athletes and their special needs might be better able to work through any challenges they present. For example, a coach who knows that one of his players is deaf can prepare the team for any potential safety issues or concerns -- such as using hand signals in place of a traditional, "Yo, the ball's coming at your head!"

But Dippold's daughter is now a high school senior, captain of her varsity volleyball team and heading off to college in the fall. I may not agree with this mother's choice back then, but clearly it didn't interfere with her daughter's success -- or that of the teams she joined. And while it may have lobbed a few curveballs at a coach or two, there's nothing wrong with trying to do what you believe is best for your child.

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For the past six years, Jeffrey Seglin has written a monthly ethics column for the New York Times business section. Seglin can be reached at

© Copyright 2004, The Salt Lake Tribune.