New U.S. Edict Requires Schools to Give Equal Opportunity to Student Athletes with Disabilities

In a move that is being compared to the Title IX expansion of athletic opportunities for women, the U.S. Department of Education has issued guidance to all elementary and secondary schools explaining that they must provide students with disabilities equal access to athletic programs. This clarification of existing law is "going to open up a whole new door of opportunity to our nation's school children with disabilities," says Bev Vaughn, executive director of the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs.

Schools will have to give otherwise qualified people with disabilities full access to sports programs. In a blog post discussing the Department's guidance, Education Secretary Arne Duncan explains that "schools don't have to change the essential rules of the game, and they don't have to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage. But they do need to make reasonable modifications . . . to ensure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else."

A Department of Education press release discussing the changes lays out the history of equal access laws and points out that "[s]tudents with disabilities have the right, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, to an equal opportunity to participate in their schools' extracurricular activities." However, "[a] 2010 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that many students with disabilities are not afforded an equal opportunity to participate in athletics, and therefore may not have equitable access to the health and social benefits of athletic participation."

Because many school districts have either ignored the law or simply don't understand how it works, the Department of Education has sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to all districts that sets out, in detail, the steps that schools must take to accommodate people with disabilities. In the letter, the Department provides several examples of discriminatory policies, like a fictitious school district that will not assist a deaf runner by providing a visual starting cue so that he can run in track meets, and another school district that will not allow a swimmer with one arm to swim for the school because she can't touch the wall with both hands.

The Department's clarification does not change federal law, but it does signal that the government will be putting resources into fighting discrimination against student athletes, and that the Department of Education will stand behind athletes who want to compete for their schools.

To read an AP article about the policy clarification, click here.

Article Last Modified: 01/28/2013

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