The U.S. Department of Education has ruled that students with disabilities must be given an equal opportunity to participate in school athletics. It’s an exciting decision for parents of kids with disabilities like myself. Our teenage son Charlie is on the more severe end of the autism spectrum and attends an out-of-district school. He loves being active, generally does well in his Adapted Physical Education (A.P.E.) classes and spends quite a bit of time on his bike and walking, or running.
Last fall we asked our school district if Charlie might be able to participate on the high school track team. Competing at a meet would probably be ultra-challenging due to the noise, the pressure, the crowds. But perhaps, we said, Charlie could join the team at the track for practice and work on his already graceful stride and ready ability to accelerate from casual walking to a full-speed sprint in a matter of seconds?
Given that my son has a long history of behavior issues, intellectual disabilities and a host of other challenges, we’re not at all sure he might be able to due to safety and other concerns. Nonetheless, Charlie’s case manager said he would look into the possibility and even mentioned providing Charlie with an aide at practices.
Additional personnel such as aides are among the sorts of accommodations that students with disabilities might need to participate in athletics. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ensures that students’ rights are protected; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that all children with disabilities have a “free and appropriate education” and must receive accommodations to help them learn. But so far, for students with disabilities, sports and athletics have been a very gray area.
It has been the case that students with physical disabilities may have been simply unable to participate in some activities but, more and more, programs for activities such as wheelchair basketball have arisen. Even more, last summer’s Paralympics in London showed that individuals with visual or hearing impairments, with cerebral palsy, with Asperger’s Syndrome, without the use of their legs, can not only participate in sports, they can excel in them.
Guidance (pdf) released by the Education Department spells out some policies that school districts must follow, while leaving many details open. School districts must provide students with disabilities with “reasonable accommodations” to make sure they have equal access. For instance, a student with a hearing impairment who qualifies for a track team might need a visual cue to start a race, rather than a starting gun. A rule about a “two-hand touch” can be waived so a one-armed swimmer can participate in swimming events.
Seth M. Galanter, the U.S. Education Department’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights, emphasized that, in determining whether a student can participate in a sport, school districts must not fall back on generalizations or stereotypes about a disability, but rather consider individuals on a case-by-case basis. “One student may not be able to play a certain type of sport, but a different student with the same disability may be able to play that sport and thrive,” he said in a press release. School districts may also be required to provide accommodations — such as an aide for my son at an after-school track practice — even at events that are not held during school hours.
“We’re thrilled about this,” says Terri Lakowski, the policy working group chairwoman of the Inclusive Fitness Coalition — in 2008, she played a large part getting Maryland to pass a law mandating equal access to athletics for students with disabilities – in Education Week’s About Special Education blog. She does point out that the Education Department’s guidance needs to offer more ways to show students with developmental disabilities like Charlie can participate but emphasizes that the new directive “will really do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women.”
It certainly makes me even more eager to push for Charlie to run with our town’s track team!
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