by Mary Alice Cookson
Students with disabilities typically receive accommodations during the school day, but they haven’t always been as welcomed into after-school life, particularly when it comes to playing on school sports teams. Guidance recently issued by the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights should change that.
The guidance clarifies schools’ responsibilities (under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) to provide athletic opportunities for students with disabilities who want to be involved in after-school sports and to make “reasonable” modifications that make their participation possible.
What does this mean?
According to Terri Lakowski, CEO of Active Policy Solutions, a government affairs firm in Washington, D.C., the new guidance:
• requires that schools individually assess your child to answer the question: “What does my child need to help him or her participate in sports?”
• enforces the idea that schools can make modifications to ensure equal access to sports for children with disabilities. If what’s needed is “reasonable,” the school must do it. And if it’s not done, the parents are legally entitled to have their concerns addressed.
Lakowski, who led a coalition in a 10-year push for this change, says the new guidance could do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for female athletes. Protections for athletes with disabilities existed previously, she says, but “sometimes, blanket rules have excluded an athlete from play because he or she could not meet the requirements.” For example, a swimmer unable to perform a two-handed touch to the wall at the end of a race might have been kept off the swim team. Modifications can now be made so that the swimmer can participate.
Under the new guidance, however, modifications that would change the essential nature of the sport or give the child with disabilities an unfair advantage would not be considered “reasonable,” Lakowski says. For example, a child in a wheelchair who wants to play basketball would likely not be accommodated in a mainstream program; an adapted wheelchair team could be created instead, if one did not already exist.