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.

About this Article: We hope you find this article informative, but it is not legal advice. You should consult your own attorney, who can review your specific situation and account for variations in state law and local practices. Laws and regulations are constantly changing, so the longer it has been since an article was written, the greater the likelihood that the article might be out of date. SNA members focus on this complex, evolving area of law. To locate a member in your state, visit Find an Attorney.

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