Lawton boy takes on league in dispute over walker
Thursday, November 4th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
LAWTON, Okla. (AP) -- Ryan Taylor would seem the typical 9-year-old: He plays a mean game of Nintendo, chases frogs in the
creek, shoots his BB gun and loves soccer.
The fact that he suffers from cerebral palsy and relies on a walker doesn't seem to slow him. But the 2-foot-high metal walker is keeping him off the soccer field and has ignited a controversy in this town that is home to the Army's field artillery.
In mid-October after Ryan had already played in two games, the president of the Lawton Optimist Soccer Association league learned
about the walker and told Ryan he couldn't play on the field because of safety rules. A proposed compromise allows him to kick
the ball in if it goes out of bounds, but that isn't enough for Ryan and his parents.
The league's decision raises questions of discrimination, and parents and kids have rallied to Ryan's cause. "My life has been pure heck the last few weeks," said league
President David Dalton, a software company employee for a contractor at Fort Sill who has been besieged with criticism. "We're not picking on the kid," Dalton said. "It's just the walker."
Ryan's mother, JoAnne Taylor, said her son is incapable of walking without it. Other parents don't mind if he plays, she added. "We're just really frustrated that they let him start the
season, then pulled the rug out from under him," Mrs. Taylor said. She's waging a campaign to have her son reinstated.
The publicity started with public reaction to a local call-in show at the radio station where Mrs. Taylor is the sales manager. She insists she didn't put the station up to asking listeners about the issue.
Dalton, who dedicates weekends to the league at no charge, has since been swamped with calls from parents and the media. Ryan signed up for soccer in September. A league coordinator allowed him to play with the Thunder, the league's peewee team
associated with Pioneer Park Elementary.
Dalton reversed the decision after he heard about the walker. Teen-age referees and the coordinator should not have allowed Ryan
to play the first two games, he said. The league's safety rules prohibit casts, helmets and metal objects that would harm kids during a game, Dalton said.
Ryan isn't barred because of his cerebral palsy, he said. The league's 1,900 participants include deaf children, a kid with one
arm and those with Down syndrome.
All kids in the league are guaranteed playing time. Ryan's position was right back, near the goalie, a spot that sees little action. Mrs. Taylor said he kicked the ball away a few times.
No kids were injured by Ryan's metal walker with four wheels, she said. The Taylors have since padded it with foam and red duct
tape in hopes of getting Dalton to reconsider. He hasn't. "I told David, 'You don't have to worry about my kid. He's tougher than those other kids,' " Mrs. Taylor said.
The Taylors adopted Ryan and were told he probably wouldn't live when one of his lungs collapsed at nine weeks. He's endured other
medical hardships, including a surgery two years ago followed by constant therapy with the goal of someday enabling him to walk.
Mrs. Taylor said she wants no special privileges for her son. "I don't want him thinking he's going to always have things
handed to him," she said.
The soccer fight seems to have fueled Ryan's competitive fervor. "The goal post is a lot more dangerous than that," he said, pointing across the Taylors' living room to the red walker as he hammed it up for visitors. "I want to kick his butt," Ryan said of Dalton. The remark drew a swift rebuke from his mother.
"He doesn't hurt anybody in practice," said 8-year-old Brendan McNerney, a friend and fellow soccer player who wants Ryan to play.
"I think it's a good thing for the other kids to be around someone who is in Ryan's situation and to discover what a normal little boy he is," said Wesley Clifton, a next door neighbor whose son also plays on Ryan's team.
Stephanie Pendergrass, mother of two soccer kids, placed a banner on her yard fence that reads 'Let Him Play.' She's asking people to sign it and plans to give it to Ryan, she said.
At a game Saturday, the Brockland Badgers soccer team wore gold crepe paper arm bands in a show of solidarity, said Kelly Haynes, the coach and parent of two players.
"I don't want to see him singled out, but I'm hearing both sides," Haynes said.
Dalton said the league could get sued if Ryan or other kids get hurt because of the walker. The Optimists International of Oklahoma
carries insurance for the group. The Optimists' statewide governor, Isaac Schider, said he
investigated and is satisfied that Ryan isn't being discriminated against. "I think they made the right decision," he said.
League games are held on the polo field at Fort Sill, but the fort has stayed out of the fray. Parents have to sign a waiver thatn absolves the Army of liabilities, said Daran Neal, post spokesman.
A 1996 federal court ruling in a California case on the Americans with Disabilities Act appears to apply to the Lawton, according to a Houston attorney. The court ruled in Schultz vs. Hemet Youth Pony League that the baseball league violated the act by excluding an 11-year-old with cerebral palsy who used crutches.
Among other conclusions, the court found that the pony league based its decision on "assumed and unsubstantiated concern of a
possible risk of harm" to the boy and other players, according to a summary of the case.
"I think it definitely applies to this type of situation," said Wendy Wilkinson, an attorney at Houston-based Southwest Disability & Business Technical Center, an educational group.
In Lawton, the last game of the fall season is Nov. 13. The Taylors aren't giving up and may consult with a lawyer before the spring season, Mrs. Taylor said.