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Feds: Schools Must Open Sports To Kids With Disabilities


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For the first time, federal officials are telling school districts that they must offer students with disabilities equal access to school sports.

In guidance issued Friday to districts across the country, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights said that children with disabilities have the right to participate in their school’s extracurricular activities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Accordingly, the agency said that students with intellectual, developmental, physical and other types of disabilities should be afforded opportunities to play for their school teams with modifications, aids and services as needed.

However, in cases where accommodations would “fundamentally alter” the game or create an unfair advantage, federal officials said schools are obligated to create separate, but equally supported opportunities for kids with disabilities to participate. Examples could be a wheelchair basketball league or unified teams where students with and without disabilities compete together, they said.

“Sports can provide invaluable lessons in discipline, selflessness, passion and courage, and this guidance will help schools ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to benefit from the life lessons they can learn on the playing field or on the court,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

While students with disabilities have a right to participate in school sports, the Education Department made clear that they may have to meet certain standards of skill or ability in order to join a team so long as the criteria are not discriminatory.

The guidance spoke specifically to the responsibilities of elementary and high schools, but the Education Department said that colleges have a similar obligation to offer access.

Advocates for inclusion in school sports said the move could do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women.

“OCR’s guidance is a landmark moment for individuals with disabilities, as it sends a loud message to educational institutions that students with disabilities must be provided opportunities for physical activity and sports equal to those afforded to students without disabilities,” said Terri Lakowski of the Inclusive Fitness Coalition.

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Comments (20 Responses)

  1. L. Eley Driggers says:

    A change that is way past due! Of course admins will whine and moun and say it costs too much. But, that’s what admins do.

  2. Holly says:

    I’m glad this is being pursued but again the schools just will not do it. I have said this again and again. Schools have been made into seperate buildings with uneducated low paid aids with good intentions with the full knowledge of the higher ups. These higher ups know full well what they are doing just like the ceo’s of companys that give them self bonuses and then call bankruptsy, Change the name of the company and start all over again. Neither schools nor buisnesses are attempting to keep adrift. The name of the game is run it into the ground, They most be teaching this in Harvard.==get as much money and move on. I really wih these feds could make a difference with the schools but I think we allready know what directions these schools are turning are nomal average kid into let alone a child that is special needs.Schools should be a place to learn. Thats it. Nothing else.
    mom of special needs that took her kid out of montcalm because of bullies by administration

  3. Marie Kennedy says:

    It would be great if parents, friends and family of special needs kids could see them play a sport..however it is worked out.. at a school function and cheer them on, instead of just being lucky enough to have a local group support special sports and arrange a way for them to play -Thank you to all of those groups and volunteers that do this now ! Author, My Perfect Son has Cerebral Palsy

  4. Sonja L says:

    I hope this will work because I get so sick of seeing “touchy-feely” news stories about allowing a student with disabilities a shot at the end of a game when the clock runs down. Have the student in the game throughout and I’ll be impressed.

    This just seems like another unfunded mandate that will probably be difficult to enforce in these tough budget times. We don’t have proper funding, supports and services under IDEA, yet. While I applaud the effort and the public announcement of need for fairness in sports, we still haven’t seen it properly implemented in the 30+ year history of IDEA for EDUCATION equity…and our federal government is forcing another “flavor-of-the-month”, unfunded Common Core program down our throats without considering how students with disabilities fit in.

    I’m hoping for the best, but see more lawsuits – with more lawyers getting rich over this than students with disabilities being included in sports.

  5. Marge says:

    I hope schools will be open to this. But then again those that were open to the idea probably already did it! It’s easier to pass legislation than it is to change hearts and minds.

  6. Kristine says:

    I am excited about this change. Sports played a major role in my development as a strong, independent, and driven person. I am hopeful that my son will have the same opportunity to participate as I think sports are extremely valuable.

  7. Mom to a child with different abilities says:

    Is anyone looking at the fact that the student with disabilities still must have the skills to MAKE THE TEAM? This mandate DOES NOT give kids with disabilities THE RIGHT to be ON A TEAM…they must STILL TRY OUT…which means they can get cut…LEGALLY. And to then expect the district to create a team, purchase the uniforms, pay the coaches, staff and additional building costs not to mention transport the newly created team to other districts to play? And how many schools have enough students with disabilities to actually man a full team? And where is this money coming from? This is yet ANOTHER federal mandate that is UNFUNDED-I’d rather they focus on my child’s educational needs being met appropriately then worrying about SPORTS. This mandate is to ensure the small modifications (visual cueing for a skilled runner on track with a hearing disability in place of a starter pistol, etc) are made for those players who SKILLS ARE SUFFICIENT TO MAKE THE TEAM. In the clarification of this it says that schools are encouraged to work with communities to ensure their opportunity to participate in a sports league…like a challenger baseball or little league (to be inclusive)…my bet is this is where kids with disabilities would be sent for sports participation. If it’s a team at school that everyone is able to be on (meaning there are no cuts) then yes, the district needs to provide the student with a disability the supports that student needs to participate…even if that is a 1:1 aid after school and on weekends…with good advocacy (and granted allot of work sometimes, this is already being done in schools). Don’t expect schools to welcome your kids on teams just because they have a disability and now the federal government says they have to allow them on the team…they don’t…they must still possess the skills to MAKE THE TEAM.

  8. Jack A. Gruber, Ph.D. says:

    As a coach for a Special Olympics basketball team and as a helper for our swimming, bowling and volleyball teams, why don’t the parents consider having the special needs children participate in Special Olympics. At least in our local program, everyone gets to participate regardless of their skill level. We have different basketball teams for different skill levels and a developmental skills team for those unable to participate in an actual game. Or do you feel that Special Olympics is a stigma as you have done with the “MR” designation. Not everyone can participate in a public school sports system.

  9. KA101 says:

    Two points:
    1) requiring that students make the team goes for all students. Letting someone on the team without regard to their ability, for whatever reason, reduces team morale and–once the waived-on player realizes it–probably won’t make them feel any better, defeating the purpose of inclusion IMO.
    Now, if the coach is using two sets of tryout standards, that’s a problem. (Supports/accommodations, in this case, go toward making sure that everyone has the same chance at achieving the standard, not to move the standard for different people.)

    2) I don’t think that there ought to be a stigma re the Special Olympics. Too bad that the last time I’d heard anything about them was a derogatory, MR-slurring directive against arguing-on-the-Internet. To be clear: I don’t agree with using the SO as a derogatory, linking them to MR, or stigmatizing either of the two. Reference made strictly to illustrate existing/background stigma.
    Would love to see more/better press coverage of the Special Olympics, as that sort of thing is an important part of elevating people’s opinion.

  10. Kristy says:

    Our local high school already allows kids with disabilities to try out and make the teams. Yes they do have to have the skills. Currently our wrestling team as a athlete with Cerebral Palsy. The only accommodations they had is they start in the down position vs the upright on feet position.

    We also have Unifed Soccer Team. Along with Special Olympics are offered and part of school. The kids practice once a week during the school day-afternoons. This is my daughter first year participating in Special Olympics..she has really enjoyed it.

    What this is saying…is they can not tell a student with disabilities..sorry you can not even try out. That is what was happening in some areas. The students were being told sorry don’t even sign up.

  11. Kim says:

    One of our local schools has a girl with downs syndrome on the swim team. She competed in two events in each meet including the county wide invitational with all teams and higher competition. No one got more applause ands shouts of encouragement from spectators and other teams than that girl. Each time she would come in last yet emerged from the pool smiling and high fived by her team mates. It was a wonderful feeling for me as a mom of a boy with special needs .

  12. Angela says:

    Using this information to help a student with high functioning autism get on the middle school gymnastics team
    My sister and I coach special olympics gymnastics. All of our athletes are so talented!

  13. Phillip says:

    The mechanism to bring this about already exists. It is one of 10 related services identified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and is called recreation therapy. Remember to ask for it by name on your student’s next IEP.

  14. The Tertiary PLACE Inc. says:

    Yes, way past due, and parents are keen. I welcome this news! Here at The Tertiary PLACE, a not-for-profit in Australia (find us on Facebook) we are in our fourth year of providing our SportSTAR program as a “separate, but equally supported” option for schools. Happy to come and help schools set it up and show you how we make it work. :-)

  15. Jennifer Frank says:

    NO WAY! Schools have team sports so that the kids on those teams can WIN. You start letting a bunch of special needers on the teams and they have a lot less chance of winning which means fewer scouting for colleges and such. WHY does everyone have to call on the government to get involved?? My God, can we not figure this out on our own? Why not get the kids involved in Special Olympics? My son does it twice a year and he LOVES it! If a child is not mentally or physically capable to do their job on the team, that is not fair to the other regular kids who play sports to win. Why can’t the schools have after school time for special kids and sports? Unless the special ed child is high functioning and can play his role effectively on the team, they don’t need to be on the team.

  16. Doreen Garcia says:

    I have a son who academically struggles. He has a learning disability. I have had problems with the school system for years. My son is an awesome athlete “He shines”. Unfortunately because he struggles academically he does not meet the 2.0 grade point average in order to be part of the team. His coaches recommended I take him out of the high school and put him in a charter school and he would be able to play on the high school team anyway. Well the charter school changed his IEP and truly do not have the accommodations or a plan in place for him. The lack of encouragement is discouraging me and he has lost all hope. Please let me know if there’s a place than can help him finish school and not feel that he will never be able to finish school because he’s different. No one really cares. I want my son to be successful but he really does struggle.

  17. Tracey Culp says:

    My daughter was denied to participate in volleyball her freshman year. She played in jr. High. The coach and principal informed me she was “cut” because she didn’t have the qualifications to play. They didn’t modify her tryout. Does she have any right to be on the team?

  18. Mary Schilz says:

    I need clarity about high school sports and eligibility under CHAASA requirements to play. My daughter has Learning disabilities and is on a 504 Plan and is being reevaluated for an IEP. My issue is with her high school. She made the varsity team. We have been working with administration, her counselor and athletic director to work with her academics in order to qualify to play per her high school and with CHAASA, but the process is going too slow and I’m afraid I will loose her in the process. Her sport is what is her motivation. I can’t find any related stories in Colorado that could guide me. Can you suggest what I should do? I appreciate your assistance.

  19. Irene says:

    My son with Autism fimally made the JV baseball team at Temescal Canyon High School in Lake Elsinore, Ca after not making it his freshman and soft more year. My son is the only player on the team that hasn’t gotten his helmet and has not played in a game. The coach is letting a freshman play thSt isn’t as good as my son. I had a meeting with the athletic director and principal and they told me that the coach never had to let my son play in a game and there is nothing that I can do about it. Is there anything I can do?

  20. Jamie C. says:

    We just had a meeting to determine if my daughter is eligible for 504. She has juvenile fibromyalgia and asthma. She has played basketball since 3 rd grade and is a very good player. They told us if found eligible they won’t allow her to participate in basketball including through the rec center because it’s part of the school. They said it contradicts the issues with asthma. Does this count as discrimination? They then found she wasn’t eligible for a 504.

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