Department of Education says schools must provide sports for disabled students

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by Chris Patterson

(CNN) -- Schools must give students with disabilities equal opportunities to participate in extracurricular athletics, including varsity sports, the U.S. Department of Education said Friday. And if existing sports don't meet the needs of those students, schools must create additional athletic programs.

The department's Office for Civil Rights pointed to a 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office that said disabled students were not getting equal opportunities to participate in sports, a right they were granted under the Rehabilitation Act, passed in 1973.

Denying disabled students' participation meant that they "may not have equitable access to the health and social benefits" of playing sports, the education department said in a statement Friday.

"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 the statement accompanying the guidelines.

Examples of the kinds of accommodations the department is seeking included offering a visual cue, along with a starter pistol, to allow deaf students to participate in track races or allowing a one-hand touch to end swimming races, rather than a two-hand touch, which would allow students with only one arm to participate.

Disabled students should be given the right to prove themselves during actual events and not be offered only practice spots based on their disability, the department's guidelines said.

The rules say accommodations must be made as long as they don't give disabled students any advantage over those without a disability, do not fundamentally change the sport in question and do not compromise safety.

The rules apply to all extracurricular athletics, including clubs, intramural sports and varsity, junior varsity and freshman interscholastic teams, the department said.

It said it hopes disabled students can find a in existing programs, but if that is not workable, new programs must be created.

"Students with disabilities who cannot participate in the school district's existing extracurricular athletics program -- even with reasonable modifications or aids and services -- should still have an equal opportunity to receive the benefits of extracurricular athletics. When the interests and abilities of some students with disabilities place cannot be as fully and effectively met by the school district's existing extracurricular athletic program, the school district should create additional opportunities for those students with disabilities," the guidelines state.

"Participation in extracurricular athletics can be a critical part of a student's overall educational experience, Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights, said in a statement. "Schools must ensure equal access to that rewarding experience for students with disabilities."

The American Association of Adapted Sports Programs said Friday's announcement "will have far reaching positive effects on the lives of children with disabilities."

"With this new guidance we can further advance our vital work of making sure all kids who want to take part in school sports will have an opportunity to do so," the organization's executive director, Beverly Vaughn, said in a statement posted on its Facebook page.

In the same statement, the Inclusive Fitness Coalition, of which the AAASP is a part, likened the new guidelines to Title IX, the legislation that provided for equal opportunity for women in sports.

"This guidance is about expanding opportunities and inclusion," Terri Lakowski, CEO of the advocacy group Active Policy Solutions, said in a Facebook posting. "It's clear. Schools have a responsibility to provide athletic opportunities to students with disabilities."

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