Making School Sports Accessible

By Scott Suzuki, Esq., Honolulu, Hawaii

The U.S. Department of Education recently published guidelines clarifying the responsibility of public schools to make sports more accessible to students with disabilities. Although both the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have long mandated that public education include sports-related accommodations, many districts were unclear about requirements.

The guidelines stipulate that schools make “reasonable modifications” on behalf of students with disabilities. When accommodations are not possible, would alter a sport in a significant way or bestow an advantage, it’s suggested (but not required) that a separate, fully accessible sports activity be established.

Why This Matters

The recent guidelines are in response to an earlier report indicating that students with disabilities were involved in extracurricular athletics as much as 56 percent less often than others. Greater participation in sports is important for many reasons—as a route to social inclusion, as a foundation for improved health and as a building block for self-esteem. We’ve long understood that “separate but equal” is a fiction when applied to the classroom or workplace. The playing field is no exception, and athletics offer opportunities to explode stereotypes.

Over-emphasis on “winning” can be a deterrent not only for students with disabilities but to many others in the school population. Personal improvement, teamwork and sportsmanship should be the core values of any athletic program. There’s always the next game to look forward to, and sports offer unique opportunities for developing tenacity. It may be appropriate to include sports in a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and the advice of an adaptive physical education teacher may be beneficial.

I have a client whose teenage son has autism and compulsion disorders. The young man’s mother had recently passed away, and he was having a difficult time. My client encouraged him to try out for the high school’s football team. At first, the coach was hesitant, but after making certain accommodations (such as obtaining a special helmet), he was able to focus on the young man’s strengths, rather than his condition. The teenager turned out to be a talented outside linebacker and acquired a whole new family when he made the varsity team. While not every story or every accommodation is going to result in such a positive outcome, every person, regardless of their abilities, deserves the opportunity to make the attempt.

Making Accommodations

How can sports be adapted to a wider range of abilities? The possibilities are many. Play areas could feature soft surfaces, rather than concrete, while avoiding wood chips or sand, which interfere with wheelchairs. Flashing lights could replace starter pistols in race events such as track or swimming. In some cases, equipment may require modification. The creative efforts of special education teachers, adaptive physical education specialists, occupational therapists and others will be needed to make sports truly accessible.

Sports aren’t for everyone. But they should be available to all.



  1. Julie O'Brien May 23, 2013 at 10:46 am

    I think that “forcing” the “normal” kids to have a certain amount of disabled kids in their sport is just asking for our disabled kids to be bullied. They will be blamed for losses and won’t have motivation to push themselves since they’ll most likely never be as good as the others. I don’t think this is the answer. I also think this tells them we all think that they aren’t good enough to earn a spot or that practice doesn’t matter. They get it. They don’t want to be in a sport where they clearly know they are not as quick, fast or good as most of the other boys/kids.

    What I think an answer could be has to do with the Special Olympics coming into the schools and joining together with the special education department and parents to get our kids into sports with other kids that are their true peers. I know my son wants to excel in his sport and likely couldn’t with “normal” functioning children. He has that chance with other kids that are similar to him therefore forcing him to work harder and get better to do so. He wants that.

    Our kids understand that they are different. Let’s support that it is ok to be different and not “force” things. We need to practice what we preach. Let’s allow them to be just as “needed” and/or “wanted on their own teams so they have a chance to be the team’s MVP by pushing and working harder.

    I’m willing to coach a special ed team… Are you?

  2. Scott May 24, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    Ms. O’Brien:
    Mahalo for your comments. I share your concerns about bullying – an issue worthy of an entire lengthy conversation. On an optimistic note, perhaps giving people of all skill levels the opportunity to participate together will allow us to become more comfortable with – and even supportive of – one another. That’s been my experience when I join in neighborhood pick up games with athletes of varying abilities.

    My optimism aside, it is important to note that the new regulations do not impose quotas and certainly will not be the an “answer” to athletic or social inequities. The new Section 504 requirements are about providing an opportunity. Everyone is different, but every one deserves a chance. Even with required accommodations, not all people will be able to compete or participate at the same level – and that’s ok. For more information on the application of Section 504, I suggest reading this letter from the Office of Civil Rights:

    My interest in the new regulations stems in part from my experiences over the past 13 years as a year-round, multi-sport volunteer coach with the Special Olympics of Hawaii. Having seen the positive impact athletics have had on my friends, my family and myself, I am encouraged and excited to see that even more opportunities are becoming available to all people. I believe that having more opportunities for people of all ability levels to play sports together – such as in “Unified Sports” in the Special Olympic program – a is a step in the right direction.

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