United States Dept. of Education Guidance Calls for Leveling the Playing Field for Students with Disabilities

SONC Unified basketball teammates celebrate victory.

SONC Unified basketball teammates celebrate victory.

Washington, DC, 25 January, 2013 – The United States Department of Education (DOE) released new guidance to schools and school systems throughout the nation that receive federal aid about the requirements of providing quality sports opportunities for students with disabilities.  While the guidance does not make new law, it does identify the responsibilities that schools and school systems have under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The key messages in the new guidance could be summarized as the following:

  • Every school child with a disability must be evaluated as an individual relative to their sports and physical activity participation. No generalizations about the ability of a child or children who have disabilities in the same category are permissible.
  • Reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities to participate in sports activities are required; the basic nature of a sport does not need to be compromised under this guidance, but where reasonable accommodations do not alter the nature of the sport, they should be made.
  • School districts and schools must provide aids and services to enable students with disabilities to participate if the lack of such aids and services would not permit participation.
  • Exclusion of students from sports activities is not permissible.  Therefore, if children with disabilities cannot be accommodated within existing programs, alternatives need to be developed.
  • Acknowledging that there are safety issues involved in youth sports, schools need to determine if adjustments in existing programs can be reasonably accomplished without creating real safety issues for other students that cannot be mitigated.  This would be a rationale for creating separate sporting opportunities for youth with disabilities in such instances.

The Special Olympics community applauds President Barack Obama for creating the significant call to action which will not only create equality in schools for students with disabilities, but will all lead to more welcoming and tolerant schools across America. The specific call out to “allied or “unified” sports, is especially encouraging, as this has been a part of the Special Olympics offering for many years.

Special Olympics Unified Sports ®, an inclusive sports program that combines approximately equal number of individuals with intellectual disabilities and partners without intellectual disabilities on teams for training and competition, is a significantly growing program that has direct results in building more inclusive school climates. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has supported Unified Sports ®over the past year, including the development of a specific online coaches’ education course located at www.NFHSLearn.com.

Special Olympics can also offer the Special Olympics Project UNIFY® Program which is an obvious solution to this directive. Project UNIFY uses inclusive sports activities, youth leadership and activation to provide all students opportunities for participation and acceptance. This program, a direct result of DOE funding, has shown proven results in providing students opportunities to play sports together, enhance school climate and give students increased physical, social and educational skills.

According to Special Olympics International Chairman and CEO Timothy Shriver, “This new guidance is vitally important to students with disabilities.  Special Olympics has pursued a fully inclusive sports participation path for people with various levels of intellectual capabilities and sporting abilities throughout our history, and with Unified Sports® since 1989.  We know the direct benefits from sports participation to individuals with intellectual disabilities, as well as their Unified Sports® teammates without such disabilities.”

The guidance emphasizes access and participation and will rely heavily, especially in the coming months, on an intensive and comprehensive outreach and communications process.  Still, the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights does have the authority to seek redress where there is evidence that the provisions of underlying law are not being implemented.

The State of Maryland passed landmark legislation in July, 2008 entitled the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Law.  Many of the key points of emphasis provided by the U.S. Department of Education are included in Maryland’s sports equity law.  Special Olympics Maryland works with 19 of the 24 school systems throughout the state conducting Unified Sports® programs that fulfill the spirit and intent of the law, and providing a beneficial environment for all students with and without intellectual disabilities.

“Special Olympics has been a leader in bringing sport to people with intellectual disabilities and over the past 4 years has worked closely with the United States Department of Education, school districts and schools around the country through Project UNIFY to make such important opportunities available to students.  With this new guidance, we stand ready to do even more”, said Shriver.  “Our experience has demonstrated that the vast majority of schools just do not have the types of sport programs which children with various levels of disability need.  We hope that educators will take this opportunity to commit to sports programming that will meet the social, psychological and physical need of children with disabilities.”

Note: The full guidance can be found at www.ed.gov/ocr, news. Additional information on the Special Olympics Unified Sports® program and Project UNIFY can be found here.