WASHINGTON (AP) — Breaking new ground, the U.S. Department of Education is telling schools that they must include students with disabilities in sports programs or provide equal alternatives. The directive — reminiscent of Title IX, the 1970s expansion of athletic opportunities for women — could bring sweeping changes to school budgets and locker rooms for years.
Schools would be required to make “reasonable modifications” to their sports programs for students with disabilities or else create parallel athletic programs that have comparable standing.
“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 announcing the directive Friday.
Although his letter was directed at elementary and secondary schools — without comparable guidance to colleges — higher education will be reading it closely, predicted advocates for the disabled.
Federal laws already require states to provide a free K-12 public education to all students, and they prohibit schools receiving federal money from discriminating against students with disabilities. The new directive goes further, explicitly telling schools that access to interscholastic, intramural and intercollegiate athletics is a right.
“This is a landmark moment for students with disabilities. This will do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women,” said Terri Lakowski, who for a decade led a group pushing for the changes. “This is a huge victory.”
Education Department officials emphasized that they did not intend to overhaul sports traditions or guarantee disabled students a spot on existing teams. Instead, they said, schools must not exclude students based on their disabilities if they can keep up with their classmates.
“It's not about changing the nature of the game or the athletic activity,” said Seth Galanter, the department's acting assistant secretary for civil rights.
It's unclear whether the new guidelines will lead to a surge in sports participation. There was a big increase in female participation after Title IX instructed schools to treat female athletics on par with male. That led many colleges to cut some men's teams, arguing that the step was necessary to finance women's teams.
There is no deadline for schools to comply with the new directive on students with disabilities.
Activists cheered it nonetheless. “This is historic,” said Bev Vaughn, executive director of the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs, a nonprofit group that helps schools set up sports programs for disabled students. “It's going to open up a whole new door of opportunity to our nation's schoolchildren with disabilities.”
A Government Accountability Office study in 2010 found that students with disabilities participated in athletics at lower rates than those without. The report also suggested that the benefits of exercise were even more important for the disabled because they are at greater risk of being sedentary.
“We know that participation in extracurricular activities can lead to a host of really good, positive outcomes both inside and outside of the classroom,” said Kareem Dale, a White House official who guides the administration's policies for disabled Americans.
Dale, who is blind, wrestled as a Chicago high school student alongside students with full vision. “I was able to wrestle mainly because there was a good accommodation to allow me to have equal access and opportunity,” Dale said, describing rule modifications that required his competitors to keep in physical contact with him during matches.
Such accommodations could become a model for schools and colleges. For instance, track and field officials could use a visual cue for a deaf runner to begin a race.
Some states already offer such programs. Maryland, for instance, in 2008 required schools to create equal opportunities for disabled students in physical education programs and on mainstream athletic teams. Minnesota awards state titles for disabled student athletes in six sports.
Increasingly, those with disabilities are finding spots on their schools' teams.
“I heard about some of the other people who joined their track teams in other states. I wanted to try to do that,” said Casey Followay, 15, who competes on his Ohio high school track team in a racing wheelchair. Current rules require him to race on his own, without competitors running alongside.
He said he hopes the new directive will change that to let him compete against runners. “It's going to give me the chance to compete against kids at my level.”
In cases in which students need more serious changes, a separate league could be required.
College administrators will be closely reading Duncan's directive, even though it wasn't aimed at them, said Scott Lissner, the Americans With Disabilities coordinator at Ohio State University and the president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability.
“The logic that's in there applies us to us as well as it does to K-12, for the most part,” Lissner said.
Although slightly different parts of civil rights law apply to colleges, the “approach in this letter was really more about the basic underlying equity and civil rights issues” that schools must address, he said.
Generally, Lissner predicted, the effects for colleges will be felt more in campus intramural and club sports programs than intercollegiate programs.
That's because relatively few people, disabilities or no, can meet the standards to compete in intercollegiate sports, he said, and nothing in the directive requires a change in those standards. But the purpose of intramural and club sports is broader, and colleges might have to broaden them.
Some observers cautioned that the first few years would bring fits and starts — as Title IX did after its 1972 passage.
“Is it easy? No,” said Brad Hedrick, director of disability services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and himself a hall-of-famer in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. “In most places, you're beginning from an inertial moment. But it is feasible and possible that meaningful and viable programming can be created.”
Establishing students' needs will be the first step, followed by training for educators and coaches.
“We need to determine how many children would qualify and then look to where kids can be integrated onto traditional teams appropriately. Where we can't, then we need to add an adaptive program,” said Vaughn, the nonprofit group executive who has advised schools on how to set up such programs.
“Typically, the larger school districts realistically could field a varsity and junior varsity team in each sport,” she said. “In more rural areas, we would do a regional team. It's not going to overwhelm our schools or districts. It's just going to take some solid planning and commitment.”