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Title IX redux? Education Dept. says school sports can't shut out disabled.

The Education Department issued a letter Friday advising public schools how to offer equal opportunities for disabled students in sports. Some say it is a landmark moment.

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Another principle is that schools need to make reasonable accommodations, but they aren’t expected to do something that would compromise safety or fundamentally alter the nature of a sport. A deaf student, for instance, should be given a visual cue at the start of a track race. Or a swimmer with only one hand should be allowed to have a “two-hand touch” rule waived, though the school may require that her other arm be stretched toward the wall when she touches, to make it as equal as possible to what other students must do.

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The first goal should be to integrate disabled students into existing programs as much as possible, the letter says – including giving them services they may need to stay for after-school sports, such as an insulin injection.

But when that’s not possible for some students, “the school district should create additional opportunities,” the letter states. For schools that have only a few such students, districts or regions can develop teams, perhaps mixing male and female students or offering “unified” sports that blend students with and without disabilities, the letter suggests.

“Enough organizations have proved that it’s affordable and easily implemented,” says Tommie Storms, cofounder of the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs in Atlanta, Ga., which has been helping school districts in Georgia, Florida, and Kentucky create such programs since 1996.

Through district or regional efforts in her area, schools can offer 30 weeks of sports programming in three sports to disabled students for $10,000 to $25,000, she says, compared to a typical high school football budget of $60,000.

Of course, programs for disabled students won't be competing for funding with high-school football programs, which few schools would consider cutting. The concern among critics is that schools might have to cut back in other areas – such as eliminating lower-profile sports – to accommodate such spending.

 For Ms. Storms' part, the cost is worth it.

“The economic impact of teaching these kids to be can-do instead of can’t-do is immeasurable,” she says. Parents have told her that a child started pushing her wheelchair herself for the first time after trying a sport, or that a boy who doctors never expected to raise his hands above his shoulders is now playing basketball.

Interest in sports among disabled students skyrocketed in the Atlanta area after the 1996 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. Some local students have gone on to medal in more recent Paralympics.

And yet, even when Storms’ organization offered $1 million in startup grants, it had to reach out to schools to get them interested. Adapted sports has been “a fringe issue for many in sport and education,” she says, so the OCR guidance letter “goes a long way to put it on the map … to show it is an issue that will be enforced…. It does give parents and athletes teeth in their struggle.”

Maryland is the only state with a law requiring broader access: the 2008 Fitness and Athletic Equity Act for Students with Disabilities.

The state has seen “exponential growth in mainstreaming and the creation of adapted teams,” says Ms. Lakowski. With the federal guidance now available, her group will focus on working to implement it nationally.

Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary for civil rights, said in conference call Friday that the Education Department will offer schools and athletic associations technical assistance, and said he anticipates a team effort to expand opportunity for students.

But the letter offers a reminder that students who believe they’ve been discriminated against can file a complaint with OCR or in court.


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