A deaf high school sprinter who can't hear the starter pistol gets a visual cue to start the race.

Swim meet officials waive the rule requiring a two-hand touch finish for a one-armed swimmer.

Accommodations like these could become commonplace as public schools implement new federal guidelines that disabled kids have a right to play sports.

In fact, Nebraska and Iowa schools in many cases are already making accommodations, which the U.S. Department of Education said are required under federal law.

The department's Office for Civil Rights said Friday that schools must accommodate disabled students or set up equal alternative programs.

Advocates for the disabled are calling the directive historic, and comparisons are being made with Title IX, the 1972 expansion of athletic opportunities for women.

Federal officials said equal opportunity does not mean that every student with a disability is guaranteed a spot on an athletic team for which other students must try out.

School districts must make reasonable modifications to policies, practices or procedures if necessary to ensure equal opportunity, unless the modifications would “fundamentally alter” the nature of the sport.

When the interests and abilities of some students with disabilities cannot be as fully and effectively met by the school district's existing extracurricular athletic program, the school district should create additional opportunities for those students with disabilities, federal officials say.

An ever-increasing number of school districts across the country are creating disability-specific teams for sports such as wheelchair tennis or wheelchair basketball.

It's possible local schools could start developing those.

Students with disabilities at the postsecondary level must also be provided an equal opportunity to participate in athletics, including intercollegiate, club and intramural athletics, the guidelines said.

The federal government defines a person with a disability as one who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Last year the Omaha Public Schools had 8,715 special education students. They cope with disabilities such as deafness, blindness, speech impairment, brain injuries, dyslexia, behavior disorders and developmental delays.

Rhonda Blanford-Green, executive director of the Nebraska School Activities Association, said state sports have already been moving toward inclusion.

The association is looking at incorporating two paralympic races into the state high school track and field meet, Blanford-Green said.

That's in addition to the two confirmed coed 100-meter heats for the Special Olympics, she said.

“We've already been working to make this happen, because we believe in the inclusion and opportunity,” she said.

It will take a team effort, she said, to incorporate disabled students without modifying how activities are contested and while protecting the opportunities for able-bodied students.

Rick Wulkow, executive director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association, said that when somebody calls with a request for accommodations, the association tries to help.

“The kids that have disabilities, if they have spirit, heart, drive and desire, why shouldn't we find the accommodations to meet their needs?” Wulkow said.

Iowa holds state championships in track and field and cross country for students with disabilities, he said. The state has been involving disabled students in track and field since the 1990s and in cross country the past two years, he said.

Some alternative programs have sprung up in high schools. At least four area high schools — Westside, Papillion-La Vista, Omaha North and Columbus — have established Sparkle Effect cheerleading squads for special needs students. The program was started by cheerleaders in Bettendorf, Iowa. The organization's website now lists 87 affiliated squads nationwide.

Gretna Superintendent Kevin Riley said school districts long have been doing whatever they could to get kids involved in activities.

A student who graduated last year, in a wheelchair because of muscular dystrophy, served as the student manager of the girls basketball team. When the team traveled, the district found ways to make sure the student manager could go along, if she wanted to. She also was a state speech champion.

“She was such a sharp girl,” Riley said. “She was part of the team, she was part of the group. They were just dear friends.”

World-Herald staff writers Julie Anderson and Marjie Ducey contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1077, joe.dejka@owh.com

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