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U.S.: Sports are a civil right for disabled

Friday, January 25, 2013

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Education Department is telling schools they must include students with disabilities in sports programs or provide equal alternative options. The directive, reminiscent of the Title IX expansion of athletic opportunities for women, could bring sweeping changes to school budgets and locker rooms.

Schools would be required to make "reasonable modifications" for students with disabilities or create parallel athletic programs that have comparable standing as mainstream programs.

"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," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement announcing the new guidance today.

Federal laws, including the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, require states to provide a free public education to all students and bans schools that receive federal funds from discriminating against students with disabilities. Going further, the new directive from the Education Department's civil rights division explicitly tells schools and colleges that access to interscholastic, intramural and intercollegiate athletics is a right.

"This is a landmark moment for students with disabilities. This will do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women," said Terri Lakowski, who led a coalition pushing for the changes for a decade. Education Department officials emphasized they did not intend to change sports' traditions dramatically or guarantee students with disabilities a spot on competitive teams. Instead, they insisted schools cannot exclude students based on their disabilities if they can keep up with their classmates.

"It's not about changing the nature of the game or the athletic activity," said Seth Galanter, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights at the education department.

It's not clear whether the new guidelines will spark a sudden uptick in sports participation. There was a big increase in female participation in sports after Title IX guidance instructed schools to treat female athletics on par with male teams. That led many schools to cut some men's teams, arguing that it was necessary to be able to pay for women's teams.

There is no deadline for schools to comply with the disabilities directive.

Activists cheered the changes.

"This is historic," said Bev Vaughn, the executive director of the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs, a not-for-profit group that works with schools to set up sports programs for students with disabilities. "It's going to open up a whole new door of opportunity to our nation's school children with disabilities."

A Government Accountability Office study in 2010 found students with disabilities participated in athletics at consistently lower rates than those without. The study also suggested the benefits of exercise among children with disabilities may be even more important because they are at greater risk of being sedentary.

"We know that participation in extracurricular activities can lead to a host of really good, positive outcomes both inside and outside of the classroom," said Kareem Dale, a White House official who guides the administration's policies for disabled Americans.

Dale, who is blind, wrestled as a high school student in Chicago alongside students with full vision.

"I was able to wrestle mainly because there was a good accommodation to allow me to have equal access and opportunity," Dale said, describing modified rules that required his competitors to keep in physical contact with him during matches.

Those types of accommodations could be a model for schools and colleges now seeking to incorporate students with disabilities onto sports teams. For instance, track and field officials could use a visual cue for a deaf runner to begin a race.

Some states already offer such programs. Maryland passed a law in 2008 that required schools to create equal opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in physical education programs and play on mainstream athletic teams. Minnesota awards state titles in six sports for disabled student athletes.

Increasingly, those with disabilities are finding spots on schools' teams.

In cases where students with disabilities need more serious changes, a separate league could be required.

Although the letter is directed to elementary and secondary schools and the department hasn't provided comparable guidance to colleges, some of the principles in the letter will be read closely by administrators in higher education, said Scott Lissner, the Americans with Disabilities coordinator at Ohio State University and president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability.

"The logic that's in there applies to us as well as it does to K-12, for the most part," Lissner said.

While slightly different portions of civil rights law apply to colleges and universities, "their approach in this letter was really more about the basic underlying equity and civil rights issues" that colleges also must ensure they're applying to pass muster under the law.

Generally, Lissner said, as colleges review their policies, the effects would more likely be felt in intramural and club sports programs on campus than intercollegiate ones, Lissner said. That's because relatively few people can meet the standards to compete in intercollegiate sports, and nothing in the guidance requires a change in such standards. But the purpose of intramural and club sports is broader, and colleges may have to do more to ensure students with disabilities aren't deprived of a chance to compete.

"I heard about some of the other people who joined their track teams in other states. I wanted to try to do that," said 15-year-old Casey Followay, who competes on his Ohio high school track team in a racing wheelchair.

Current rules require Followay to race on his own, without competitors running alongside him. He said he hopes the Education Department guidance will change that and he can compete against runners.

"It's going to give me the chance to compete against kids at my level," he said.

Some cautioned that the first few years would bring fits and starts.

"Is it easy? No," said Brad Hedrick, director of disability services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a hall-of-famer in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. "In most places, you're beginning from an inertial moment. But it is feasible and possible that a meaningful and viable programming can be created."

Establishing students' needs would be the first step, followed by training educators and coaches.

"We need to determine how many children would qualify and then look to where kids can be integrated onto traditional teams appropriately. Where we can't, then we need to add an adaptive program," said Vaughn, who has advised states and districts how to be more inclusive.

"Typically, the larger school districts realistically could field a varsity and junior varsity team in each sport. In more rural areas, we would do a regional team. It's not going to overwhelm our schools or districts. It's just going to take some solid planning and commitment."


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Good grief! Physical education class makes sense, but competitive sports does not. We are born with what we have. This type of "you can do whatever you want to do because you are special" attitude is what has ruined this last generation and will most definitely damage the next generation. We are not all amazing atheletes and are not all Rhodes Scholars no matter what our parents told us! Oh, when will common sense become popular again?

-- Posted by LiberalDemocrat on Fri, Jan 25, 2013, at 9:19 AM

LiberalDemocrat: Now, your asking a little to much now when you say common sense that is something in the past, if it is not stupid these days it will not fly.

-- Posted by swampeastmissouri on Fri, Jan 25, 2013, at 9:31 AM

What is the primary purpose of sports in schools?

If it is to be a farm system for college (and eventually pro) athletics and to win tournaments & trophies to bring fame & glory to the school then it is a ridiculous notion to waste resources on disabled students.

If school sports is primarily about building character, discipline, and teamwork then clearly we need to include as many kids as we possibly can. Who wouldn't want their children to learn those skills? Not only do we need girls teams & disabled teams, but we need teams for the fat kids, the undersized kids, and teams for as many kids as we possibly can.

-- Posted by Nil on Fri, Jan 25, 2013, at 10:51 AM

-- Posted by Nil on Fri, Jan 25, 2013, at 10:51 AM

In your definition of school sports you left out "competition". Just like the math meets, track meets, spelling bees and other venues it is about competition.

The liberal mind set today is all about "everyone wins, no one loses". It's ridiculous. They won't allow kids to pick teams on the playground or play games where this is a winner or loser. This nanny society is creating a bunch of narcissists as one Dr. said a couple of months ago.

-- Posted by Dug on Fri, Jan 25, 2013, at 10:57 AM

I don't think we've landed just yet on how to interpret this directive. I think there's alot of compromise that is going to take place in the next few years over this issue. For example, it may not be practical to allow a wheelchair bound student on a football team. I have seen a pitcher with cerebral palsy be very competitive but in general for competitive sports, this can't be a blank check for all disabled students to participate on competitive teams. I wonder if what schools will do is stop funding athletics altogether. If you want to compete in competitive sports, you may have to join a club or attend a private school. Athletic backers may have to foot more of the bills when it comes to competitive football, for example. We already see this with many teams such as hockey. I do believe schools are going over the top in funding athletics and they should be funding classroom with those monies. What I'm not sure I want to see, is a school having to set aside funds for a parallel team with physically handicapped individuals. The accomodations required, could end up costing more than the cost of educating a student. Like I said, the ruling has come down, but now is the period where the ruling gets tested, interpreted, challenged, etc. My concern is over the next 25 years, when the boundaries of that ruling have faced the muster of 25 years of stretching and shaping the boundaries of the ruling, where will we be? Everyone is guaranteed a free education - that is a right. But will that education be so bogged down by all the funding that has to go into protecting the lowest common denominator? I raised the same concern years ago, with mainstreaming special needs students. Fortunately that worked out fine in most cases. I'm always vigilante when it comes to my own child who has to sit next to a behavior disordered student in class or something along those lines. But all in all, mainstreaming special needs students has worked out fine. Will this latest ruling work out? We'll see. I may not be around in 25 years to see, but hopefully my grandchildren can accept this.

-- Posted by Beaker on Fri, Jan 25, 2013, at 11:06 AM

and to take Dug's comment a little further, I believe one of my older children went through a period of time where schools were experimenting with the "no answer is wrong" stance. During that phase, it could be OK for a student to say 2+2=5 and not be wrong. That never really took off as far as I know (it's been years since I've had kids in grade school). At least I hope that never took off. It's probably there in terms of English and writing and creative subjects, but you just can't do that with math or science for crying out loud. I would want my child to be taught that there is only one correct answer to 2+2 and that answer is 22. I'm a little more passionate about what goes on in the classroom than what goes on on the football field, but IMO, it's the same principle.

-- Posted by Beaker on Fri, Jan 25, 2013, at 11:15 AM

Beaker, you need to peek into the confused world of education again. Not only does 2 +2 not always equal 4 , but sometimes you need to add left to right. Grammar, punctuation, and mechanics aren't necessary for good writing, and written tests filled out by one individual student is not a good assessment for learning even though the SAT, ACT, and all graduate school application tests continue to be given as such. Oh, yes, the Common Core Standards are here!

-- Posted by LiberalDemocrat on Fri, Jan 25, 2013, at 8:01 PM

"This is a landmark moment for students with disabilities. This will do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women." - Terri Lakowski

Please refer to our website for updates and analysis www.activepolicysolutions.com

-- Posted by ActivePolicy on Fri, Feb 1, 2013, at 7:40 PM


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