New federal athletic guidance calls for equal opportunity for disabled

Few would deny that athletics are an integral part of school activities in the United States. Yet for many students with disabilities full participation in these programs has often been blocked if not overtly denied.

Such was the conclusion of a report to Congress by the Government Accountability Office issued over two and a half years ago.

But the Office of Civil Rights last week took a step toward rectifying that situation by issuing a guidance letter to school officials across the country in order to ensure that students with disabilities consistently have opportunities to participate in extracurricular athletics equal to those of other students."

Based on the protections afforded in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, particularly section 504, the advisory provided clear direction to educators from the elementary to postsecondary level for maximizing participation in extracurricular activities by individuals with disabilities.

It also made clear under what circumstances schools could be considered liable for civil rights violations.

The GAO report from 2010, found that "IDEA students participated in school-based extracurricular athletics at varying rates, but at lower rates than their peers."

And when on to say that at all the schools visited by the investigators, "the participation rates for IDEA students were lower than non-IDEA students, ranging from 10-to 56 percentage points lower."

In response the letter from OCR provided guidance to educators by reviewing the 504 regulations and cautioning "against making decisions based on presumptions and stereotypes."

Emphasizing the obligation of schools to ensure equal participation by students with disabilities, the Office of Civil Rights stressed, "This means making reasonable modifications and providing those aids and services that are necessary ... unless the school district can show that doing so would be a fundamental alteration to its program."

In those situations where accommodations to the standard athletic program would alter the nature of the competition, schools still must offer "additional opportunities for those students with disabilities."

Even so, the advisory cautioned that efforts must be made to promote participation by individuals with disabilities "to the maximum extent appropriate." Pointing out, in no uncertain terms, "The provision of unnecessarily separate or different services is discriminatory."

Throughout the letter, the Office of Civil Rights provided a number of examples along with analyses to illustrate various situations and clarify the advice.

Links:

Letter from the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights:

http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201301-504.pdf

GAO Report: "Students with Disabilities: More Information and Guidance Could Improve Opportunities in Physical Education and Athletics."

http://www.gao.gov/assets/310/305770.pdf

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