SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - While Title IX legislation has helped to even out the playing field for able-bodied women athletes, there is "work to be done" to broaden opportunities for girls and women with disabilities, one of the nation's leading advocates said Monday during a keynote address in Slippery Rock University's Smith Student Center.
"There is not a lot of awareness about the opportunities available to girls and women with disabilities," Ann Cody, director of policy and global outreach for BlazeSports America, said. "That is why I love coming to this University," she said. "All of you can be the vessels for change."
The three-time Paralympian and 40-for-40 Title IX Award Recipient offered the first keynote address, "Title IX and the Paralympic Movement," for SRU's Diversity and Inclusion Series. More than 100 faculty, staff and students attended and heard Cody say that Title IX advocacy needs to move from a focus on the able-bodied to children and adults with disabilities.
"It is really important, and I don't have to tell any of you that," said Cody, who serves on the International Paralympic Committee Governing Board and is the highest-ranking woman on the International Paralympic Committee. "Sports and physical activity is just as important developmentally for children who have a disability."
Cheryl Norton, SRU president, offered an introduction to the diversity series, saying individual differences create a "rich tapestry" at the University.
"Slippery Rock University values differences as strengths, not barriers or problems to be solved," Norton said. "We come together to talk about our diversity and inclusiveness. It is part of the character of our community."
Norton said the educational commitment to diversity infuses all elements of campus, especially in the education of students. "It is our commitment that we educate a community that believes in diversity and inclusion," she said.
Cody's appearance at SRU testifies to the University's commitment to adapted education. SRU's adapted physical education program prepares graduates to manage physical activity programs for people with disabilities.
Cody shared her life's story and choked up as she told students about her background. She grew up in rural, upstate New York as the oldest of three children, where sports "were a big part of the culture in the community." Cody played softball and later volleyball in high school. She was not born with a disability.
"I was running and playing, hitting the ball, throwing and I really enjoyed it," she said. "Title IX was the reason why we had all those programs in my high school."
In 1979, at 16, she lost the use of her legs from Transverse Myelitis, an inflammatory disorder that damages the spinal chord.
"That obviously was a life-changing moment, as it would be for anyone," Cody said, adding she had to learn how to use a wheelchair, get dressed and perform other day-to-day tasks. "I thought, 'What am I going to do now since I don't have sports?'"
While in the hospital, medical staff began to talk to her about adapted sports and the Paralympics, an Olympics for men and women athletes with disabilities. "That was just enough to plant the seed," she said.
Cody attended the University of Illinois, where she majored in therapeutic recreation and remained interested in athletics, committing herself to a training regiment that culminated with appearances in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Paralympics. She played wheelchair basketball in 1984 and participated in wheelchair track in 1988 and 1992.
Cody said Title IX is important in the years to come because it helps to break down "attitudinal barriers" and transform cultures, especially outside the U.S. She said there are 1 billion people worldwide with disabilities, and that only 1 percent can read and write, making mainstreaming very difficult.
"It is hard to make a living or find a job," she said.
Cody compared Title IX, which is regarded as landmark legislation requiring schools and colleges receiving federal money in any education program or activity to provide the same opportunities for females as they provide for males, as important as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
"Title IX was the first law that I became aware of as a woman," she said. "I am very fortunate and thankful for the people who advocated for Title IX."
Cody urged SRU students to get involved. "Look for opportunities to be leaders in providing opportunities, and really mean it," she said. "We all need to work together to find role models for girls and women with disabilities to see, touch and know."
Cody has been a Washington veteran and Paralympic sport expert for more than two decades, serving in various capacities, including federal affairs, Paralympic Games management and as an athlete. Her work on behalf of BlazeSports America and the disability sport movement has significantly increased awareness in Congress and the executive branch of the benefits of sports and physical activity for people with disabilities.
Cody is widely known and respected throughout the world as a leader in sport and human rights having led a number of national and international advocacy initiatives on sport with a focus on girls and women with disabilities.
Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.