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Ed. Dept. Offers Guidance on Students With Disabilities and Athletics

School districts must offer qualified students with disabilities an opportunity to participate in athletics equal to that of students without disabilities, according to guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights (OCR) on Jan. 25.

The rights of students with disabilities, including prospective student-athletes, are defined and protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as my colleague Christina Samuels noted on the On Special Education blog.

Under Section 504, schools and districts can't deny qualified students with disabilities the opportunity to participate in or benefit from federally funded programs, such as extracurricular athletics, based on their disabilities. Qualified students with disabilities are those who qualify for a free public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or those who are the same age as student-athletes without disabilities who are eligible for interscholastic athletics.

What does that mean for districts in terms of day-to-day operations? Any district with athletics must make "reasonable modifications" and provide "aids and services that are necessary to ensure an equal opportunity to participate," according to the guidance, unless the district can prove that such changes would be a "fundamental alteration to its program."

That doesn't necessarily mean that all students with disabilities must automatically be added to the sports teams of their choosing, however. The guidance specifies that schools are still allowed to require a certain "level of skill or ability" for participation in a given sport (aka, students must still try out).

In terms of "reasonable modifications," OCR offered the example of using a visual cue to signal the start of a race for a student-athlete with a hearing disability running for his or her school's track team. Another example offered by OCR was waiving a "two-hand touch" rule for a one-armed swimmer.

The guidance also says that schools "may not rely on generalizations" in regards to prospective student-athletes with disabilities, noting that one student with a certain disability may not be able to do what another can.

"Offering Separate or Different Athletic Opportunities"

The final section in the guidance, "Offering Separate or Different Athletic Opportunities," is the part that caused some consternation among some education writers and pundits. It suggests that if students with disabilities still can't participate in a district's existing athletics program, even after reasonable modifications are made, they should "still have an equal opportunity to receive the benefits of extracurricular activities."

In other words, districts should provide separate or different athletic opportunities than ones presented to student-athletes without disabilities, including the creation of district-wide disability-specific teams, or mixing male and female students with disabilities on teams together.

Fordham's Michael Petrilli called this final section "an enormous unfunded mandate" and "executive overreach" in a blog post on Jan. 25. Education Week opinion blogger Rick Hess called it a "jaw-dropping exercise in magical thinking" in a blog post from this morning.

The Dept. of Ed. quickly fired back, however.

"The guidance does not say that there is a right to separate sports programs such as wheelchair basketball," Education Department spokesman Daren Briscoe told my colleague Michele McNeil of the Politics K-12 blog. "Rather, the guidance 'urges'—but does not require—that when inclusion is not possible, school districts find other ways to give students with disabilities the opportunity to take part in extracurricular athletics."

This isn't the Dept. of Ed.'s first foray into guidance regarding students with disabilities and physical activity. In October 2011, the department recommended ways schools could increase physical activity among students with disabilities, including the use of specialized equipment.

For more on athletic opportunities for students with disabilities, check out my colleague Nirvi Shah's story from the summer of 2012 on the Special Olympics' Unified Sports program, which aims to bring together youth-athletes with disabilities and their nondisabled peers. More than 2,000 schools in 42 states have Unified Sports teams as of this past summer.

Also, share your thoughts about the OCR's new guidance in our latest discussion forum.

Want all the latest K-12 sports news? Follow @SchooledinSport on Twitter.

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