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Schools Must Accommodate Students With Disabilities in Athletics, Ed. Dept. Says

Students with disabilities must be afforded an equal opportunity to participate in school athletics, says guidance released today from the U.S. Department of Education.

The rights of students with disabilities are protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Many students with disabilities won't need any modifications at all, said Seth M. Galanter, the department's acting assistant secretary for civil rights, in a press briefing introducing the guidance. Coaches should also avoid stereotypes and generalizations when it comes to evaluating whether any student can participate in a sport, he said.

"One student may not be able to play a certain type of sport, but a different student with the same disability may be able to play that sport and thrive," he said.

Schools can make "reasonable modifications" to ensure equal access, the guidance says. Some examples might be allowing a visual cue alongside a starter pistol to allow a student with a hearing impairment who is fast enough to qualify for the track team. Another reasonable modification could be waiving a rule requiring a "two-hand touch" in swim events so that a one-armed swimmer can participate in meets.

The department also said that schools may be required to provide accommodations to students outside of normal school hours: for example, if a young student with diabetes is provided health assistance during the school day, he or she should also receive it in order to participate in extracurricular activities.

Offering students the opportunity to participate does not mean making fundamental changes to a sport, or accepting every student with a disability who shows interest in a particular team, the department notes. But schools should create additional opportunities for students with disabilities if their current offerings can't fully meet the need. The guidance states:

For example, an ever-increasing number of school districts across the country are creating disability-specific teams for sports such as wheelchair tennis or wheelchair basketball. When the number of students with disabilities at an individual school is insufficient to field a team, school districts can also: (1) develop district-wide or regional teams for students with disabilities as opposed to a school-based team in order to provide competitive experiences; (2) mix male and female students with disabilities on teams together; or (3) offer "allied" or "unified" sports teams on which students with disabilities participate with students without disabilities

Disability advocates cheered the guidance, which they say clears up an area of confusion for schools.

"We're thrilled about this," said Terri Lakowski, the policy working group chairwoman of the Inclusive Fitness Coalition. She was actively involved in getting Maryland to pass a law in 2008 mandating equal access to athletics for students with disabilities, and saw at that time there was a national need for more clarity on the issue.

The advocates partnered with federal lawmakers, who requested that the Government Accountability Office study the topic. In a 2010 report, the governmental watchdog agency wrote that students with disabilities participate in sports at consistently lower rates than their non-disabled peers.

Lakowski said that she wished the guidance offered more examples of ways to include students with developmental disabilities, such as autism, in sports. The guidance also chooses to use examples from secondary education, when the guidance applies to intercollegiate athletics as well, she noted.

But the move from the department is very welcome, she said. "This will really do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women," she said.

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