SPORTS FOR THE DISABLED SURGE

At a time when sports programs for able-bodied youths are being eliminated or cut because of budget restraints, athletics for the disabled are going gangbusters.

Little League's Challenger Division has mushroomed since its 1989 chartering to some 25,000 players in 683 leagues in the United States, Canada, England, and Czechoslovakia, says Jim Ferguson, the Challenger program's national director.

Special Olympics, Challenger's higher-profile older "brother," now serves 1 million people aged 8 and up in 115 countries; close to half a million of them are in the US. The program's modest beginnings date back to the early 1960s at a Maryland camp founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Though Challenger baseball and Special Olympics have very different roots and emphases - enjoyment vs. sport training and competition - they both offer previously unheard-of opportunities to people with disabilities.

"I have choices," says George Smith, Special Olympics's sports and education director at the group's international headquarters in Washington, D.C. "Challenger is a choice for someone who happens to have a disability. I think people are becoming more aware through the Americans With Disabilities Act and equal opportunity laws - it was a logical thing for parents to say `Why can't my kids be in sports?' "

There are three levels of competition in Special Olympics. The highest level integrates some able-bodied participants with disabled ones.

Special Olympics has had a "dramatic effect" on encouraging disabled people to get involved in sports, particularly Challenger baseball, says Mr. Smith. "They've gained a desire to play sports, and baseball is one sport Special Olympics does not play," he says.

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