The Department Of Education Requires That School Sports Be Open To The Disabled

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Over 40 years ago, Title IX mandated that schools balance the resources allocated to men’s and women’s educational programs including extracurricular sports. The sweeping overhaul dramatically improved the athletic opportunities for females by expanding both high school and college athletic programs. The Education Department has now issued its latest “guidance” requiring that students with disabilities be given the chance to participate on traditional sports teams.  The Obama administration has instructed school districts across the nation to provide disabled student with the opportunity to participate in competitive sports by making “reasonable modifications” that would allow for such involvement. However, if the necessary adjustment would inadvertently give the student an advantage or alter essential aspects of the game then a comparable sports program must be created.

Officials at the Education Department have stated that the directive is not aimed at altering the fundamental aspects of traditional sports but rather seeks to ensure that students who are able to compete with their colleagues are not excluded based on their disability.  Seth Galanter, Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights of the Department of Education, stated that “reasonable modifications” must be implement that would allow disabled students to participate. For instance, a deaf student wishing to join the school’s track and field team will be at a disadvantage as he or she will not be able to hear the starter pistol. However, the school can nevertheless make “reasonable modifications” by simply installing a flashing light that would indicate the start of the race. Schools that fail to take the appropriate steps to accommodate disabled students risk losing federal funding.

Twelve states have already instituted programs aimed at addressing the needs of disabled students in athletic events. In 2008 Maryland passed a law requiring that students with disabilities be given an equal opportunity to engage in sports programs.  Additionally, a 2010 Government Accountability Office (GOA) investigation uncovered disproportionately low participation rates among disabled students. Disability rights advocates have stated that the GOA investigation was of monumental importance as it marked the first time that this gap in participation had been statistically recognized. The Education department has not provided a definite timetable for when schools must comply with guidance and the source of funding to create or modify programs remains uncertain.

If your institution has any further questions or concerns about education law related matters, please email James G. Ryan at jryan@cullenanddykman.com or call him at (516) 357-3750.

A special thanks to Cynthia Thomas, a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for help with this post.