The Department of Education has issued new guidelines explaining what school districts need to do to enable students with physical disabilities or learning differences to participate in sports.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which protects equal access to educational opportunities, issued a letter of guidance clarifying school districts’ legal obligation to provide equal access to extracurricular activities to all students. Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, specifically section 504, disabled students with equal athletic ability have an equal right to participate in their schools’ extracurricular activities.
"Participation in extracurricular athletics can be a critical part of a student's overall educational experience,” said Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary for the OCR. "Schools must ensure equal access to that rewarding experience for students with disabilities."
The OCR issued the clarification in response to a 2010 government report that found students with what it termed “disabilities” were not participating in extracurricular athletics at the same rate as their peers -- in some cases, they were participating 56 percent less often. Students with disabilities include those whose differences wouldn’t directly affect their athletic performance, such as students with dyslexia, autism and intellectual impairments.
The report recommended the OCR make sure all districts were aware of their legal obligations to provide equal access and suggested several “reasonable modifications” schools could make, such as allowing starter pistols to be paired with visual cues, and in swimming, making exceptions to the two-hand-touch on the finish wall for students with only one hand.
In cases where such an accommodation is not possible, would significantly change the sport, or confer an advantage, schools are required to provide a separate extracurricular activity fully accessible to those students.