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.

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

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.

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.

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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