Equal Opportunities in Extracurricular Athletics for Students with Disabilities

Extracurricular athletics—which include club, intramural, or interscholastic athletics at all education levels—are an important component of an overall education program. The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report that underscored that access to, and participation in, extracurricular athletic opportunities provide important health and social benefits to all students, particularly those with disabilities. However, the GAO found that students with disabilities are not being afforded an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular athletics in public elementary and secondary schools.

In response to GAO's findings, the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, released guidance to clarify schools’ responsibilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires schools to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics and clubs.

The Rehabilitation Act provides that schools may not exclude students who have an intellectual, developmental, physical, or any other disability from trying out and playing on a team, if they are otherwise qualified. However, this does not mean that schools have to change the essential rules of the game. Schools are not required to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage; but they do need to make reasonable modifications to ensure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else.

The guidance issued will help schools meet this obligation and will allow increasing numbers of kids with disabilities the chance to benefit from playing sports.

Specifically, this guidance:

·         Provides an overview of the obligations of public elementary and secondary schools under Section 504 and the Department’s Section 504 regulations.

·         Cautions against making decisions based on presumptions and stereotypes.

·         Details the specific Section 504 regulations that require students with disabilities to have an equal opportunity for participation in nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities.

·         Discusses the provision of separate or different athletic opportunities.

For more information please see the released guidance here.

Sirenia Jimenez, law clerk

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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