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.