(File photo by Vince Bucci/Newsmakers)
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration for the first time is telling school districts across the USA that they must give disabled students equal access to extracurricular sports, a move that advocates say has been years in the making.
In a letter to schools due out Friday, Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Seth Galanter of the Department of Education says schools should provide "reasonable modifications" to allow disabled students to participate - for instance, providing a deaf track athlete with a flashing light that goes off simultaneously with the starter pistol that others hear.
He said schools don't have to radically alter games or stop choosing the most qualified athletes for competitive teams. They can look to "allied" or "unified" sports teams, in which students with disabilities participate with students without them. Schools can't deny a disabled student a slot on a sports team because a coach believes he can't compete.
Schools that don't comply risk losing federal funding, but civil rights cases rarely get that far.
"We think it's huge," said Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA, a national non-profit group established by Vietnam veterans that offers sports rehabilitation programs to anyone with a permanent disability.
He said 12 states require school sports programs to accommodate disabled students. Now, he said, other administrators "will start focusing on ways to provide those opportunities" to students who have a disability.
"It's really affording them access to terrific social situations that will hopefully break down some of the barriers and discrimination we've seen in the past," said Lindsay Jones of the Council for Exceptional Children, a national advocacy group.
The letter comes two-and-a-half years after a 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation that found students with disabilities participated in athletics "at consistently lower rates than students without disabilities." The report was historic, disabilities rights advocates say, because for the first time it put firm statistics behind what they'd been saying for years.
"We've definitely been waiting for it - we're excited to see it," Jones said. Friday's letter represents "a big change and a very positive one" for disabled students, she said. Though they've been integrated more than ever in other areas of school life, Jones said, "this has been an area that they've not been as included."
She and Bauer said a key development was the case of Tatyana McFadden, a Maryland wheelchair athlete who competed in the 2004 Paralympics games in Athens but who had to file a lawsuit to get a spot on her high school track team. McFadden went on to win medals in both the 2008 and 2012 games. Her case spurred interest from lawmakers, who asked the GAO to investigate.
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The June 2010 report said the Obama administration had given schools "little information or guidance on (physical education) or extracurricular athletics for students with disabilities."
"The GAO found that schools needed more clarity on the issue, and so this is intended to provide that clarity," Galanter said in an interview.
Bauer said many disabled students, frustrated at the lack of opportunities in school, join private after-school sports clubs. "Parents are coming to them saying, 'My kid doesn't have any opportunity in the schools to participate in sports or to compete, so we come here to do this.' That's what Tatyana was doing. She was basically treated as sort of an add-on, and she didn't like that - and she knew how good she was."