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‘Baseball got it’: Disability rights advocates hail MLB’s decision to shelve the disabled list

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

Heeding the words of disability rights advocates, Major League Baseball renamed the roster designation for players recovering from injury. Formerly known as the disabled list, MLB will now call it the injured list, the league confirmed this week.

“The principal concern is that using the term ‘disabled’ for players who are injured supports the misconception that people with disabilities are injured and therefore are not able to participate or compete in sports,” Jeff Pfeifer, MLB’s senior director of league economics and operations, wrote in a memo to clubs in December. The memo was obtained by ESPN, which first reported the news.

“As a result, Major League Baseball has agreed to change the name ‘disabled list’ to be the ‘injured list’ at both the major and minor league levels,” the memo concluded.

Disability rights advocates hailed the move as a major victory and a potential model for other organizations or entertainment entities that use anachronistic or disparaging terms, or that have policies curtailing disability rights.

“Stigma is a huge thing in society. Disabled people are a part of society [who] are routinely discriminated against in housing and employment, and sports has a huge impact on how these people are treated,” Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for disability rights, said in an interview. “And Major League Baseball might say, ‘This is an inaccurate term and we can change it,’ but fans of baseball will see this and say, ‘Disabled people came together and deserve civil rights.’ ”

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The foundation sponsors a young adult service group, Link20, that encourages businesses and governments to adopt policies that preserve the rights of disabled people. The group in late 2018 wrote to Billy Bean, an MLB vice president and special assistant to the commissioner, about misconceptions perpetuated by the term disabled list, conflating an injured individual with a healthy disabled person and suggesting disabled people are unfit to play sports.

Bean within weeks wrote back to Link20 leaders that he agreed, Ruderman said, and before the end of the year, baseball had officially ditched the disabled list moniker.

“I think it’s a huge step for the disability community,” Ruderman said, “and it looks at the fact that being disabled is part of the human condition, and disabled people deserve to have their human rights recognized like any other minority group. And baseball got it. Usually when we confront businesses or any other big organization, we get pushback. They say, ‘It’s overblown,’ or, ‘What you’re saying is fringe.’ But not baseball.”

“The name change is great,” said Helena Berger, president and chief executive of the American Association of People with Disabilities, “but ultimately what really impacts people with disabilities are the experiences: being able to go to the stadiums, having the experience to work for MLB. This is the first step in a journey to making sure they’re disability inclusive.”

The rules governing the injured list remain the same. Teams can place players on the list for 10 days or 60 days, in which case a club can add a player as a replacement. A player on the 10-day IL does not take up a roster spot on the active 25-man roster. A player on the 60-day IL does not count toward the 25- or 40-man roster.

In 2011, MLB started a seven-day list specifically for concussions.

The injured list has existed in some form since the early days of professional baseball, according to Baseball Prospectus. Rosters held only 21 players, which, when injuries mounted, forced some players back into action before they were healthy. The National League created the first disabled list in 1915, which allowed players to sit out but retain their roster spot — and, crucially, their salaries — for 10 days. They were even allowed to travel with their team as a “coacher.”

The modern disabled list was born in 1966, when players could sit out in 15-, 21- or 30-day increments. Eventually the 15-day limit was dropped to 10, the 21-day list was eliminated and the 30-day limit was expanded to 60 days.

MLB and the players’ union have discussed in recent years reviving the 15-day distinction for pitchers, who are the subject of more roster reconfiguration than position players.

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