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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.

By Staff writer / January 25, 2013



Coming soon to a school sporting event near you: more participation of students with disabilities.

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The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued guidance to schools Friday to clarify their obligation to provide equal opportunities in athletics as part of the broader effort to avoid discriminating against disabled students.

“It’s really a landmark moment for students with disabilities: This will do for them what Title IX has done for women,” says Terri Lakowski, CEO of Active Policy Solutions, an organization in Washington that helps the Inclusive Fitness Coalition lobby for policy changes.

Advocates for disabled students say that too often they are shut out of school sports because of stereotypes or a lack of understanding of how to accommodate their disabilities. When they are encouraged to participate in sports, the advocates say, it often gives a life-changing boost to their confidence, independence, health, and motivation to stay in school.

“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 in a statement Friday.

The announcement does raise questions, however, about how far schools will be expected to go – and at what expense – to offer sports for students who need more than just a minor accommodation. Will offering one wheelchair sport, such as basketball, be enough, or will a district have to offer wheelchair tennis and volleyball if they offer those sports to nondisabled students, for instance?

“My worry is the Department of Education is signing a blank check that is coming of the bank accounts of local school districts,” says Michael Petrilli, an education expert and executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

There should have been public input and a cost analysis, he adds. “We’re talking about potentially billions of dollars in new spending, and these regulatory agencies aren’t supposed to have the kind of authority to just do that by fiat.”

Sports can be provided at a reasonable cost, advocates say, and a host of organizations have sprung up in the past two decades to help schools develop policies and set up citywide or regional sports adapted for disabled students.

“We don’t know yet how this will affect school districts in terms of cost issues,” says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “I would think most of our schools and administrators will be very supportive and will do everything they can to implement this in their districts.” 

In 2010, the Government Accountability Office reported on gaps in sports opportunities for disabled students, and recommended that the Education Department issue guidance to schools. Friday’s 13-page letter stemmed from that report

It gives examples primarily for elementary and secondary schools, but its principles apply to colleges as well.

One of the principles is that students should be judged individually, rather than stereotyped. For example, a coach says a student qualifies to be on a team, but then benches her during all the games because of an assumption that her learning disability means she can’t perform under time pressures. The student needs to be given the opportunity to show if she can perform well under that pressure, and be judged by the same criteria as other players, the guidance states.

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