In a sweeping move that will affect all American schools, the Obama administration has told districts they must offer students with disabilities the same sports opportunities as other children.
Schools now must include disabled students in existing athletic programs or provide them with equal alternatives. The directive is a huge victory for disability-rights advocates and it immediately drew praise from many in the education sector. But others fear that the new requirements will blow up school district budgets at a time when few have money to spare.
The federal government argues the new rule is necessary to level the playing field for all U.S. children.
“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.
The move comes just after the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark law that required schools and colleges to offer equal athletic opportunities to women. Unlike Title IX, however, the Education Department’s latest “guidance” to school districts isn’t technically a new law. Rather, it’s a new interpretation of the existing Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prevents discrimination against disabled students.
While the new guidance does not require disabled students be allowed entry into any sports program they choose, it does require schools to make adjustments to how they run their athletic teams. For example, school track teams must use a “visual cue” alongside a starter pistol so children with hearing impairments can run and not be at a disadvantage.
The guidance likely will lead to more schools offering wheelchair basketball or similar programs to disabled students.
“It’s going to open up a whole new door of opportunity to our nation’s school children with disabilities,” said Bev Vaughn, executive director of the nonprofit American Association of Adapted Sports Programs.
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, also applauded the move.
“All students have the human and civil right to a quality public education with equal access that develops their potential, independence and character,” the labor group said in a statement.
The guidance has its roots in a 2010 study by the Government Accountability Office that found students with disabilities participate in sports at much lower rates. Supporters of the Education Department’s new policy acknowledge that fixing that gap will be difficult.
“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. “But it is feasible and possible that a meaningful and viable programming can be created.”
The Education Department has given no firm timetable for when districts must comply with the guidance. It’s also unclear whether federal funding will be provided to states and schools, or whether they’ll be required to fund additional programs or modify existing ones on their own dime.
Critics believe that the idea, while noble, may amount to yet another unfunded federal mandate.
“This is a worthy area for discussion and policymaking, but the [government] needs to tread lightly here because of the potentially complicated and expensive ways this guidance could be interpreted,” said Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank.