Directive on disabled students, sports to have varying effect
BY KIM ARCHER World Staff Writer
Saturday, January 26, 2013
1/26/13 at 5:06 AM
Some area school administrators say they already make reasonable accommodations so that students with disabilities have equal opportunity to participate in traditional school sports.
But apparently not all of the nation's school districts are complying with two federal laws that include that mandate.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Office sent a "guidance letter" to school districts to clarify that the 1973 Rehabilitation Act mandate that equal opportunities be provided for disabled students in the classroom extends to sports programs.
The law refers to students with physical, developmental or intellectual disabilities.
"At Jenks Public Schools, students with disabilities have and will continue to participate in the regular athletics program and physical education classes," spokeswoman Bonnie Rogers said.
She said the district also offers an adaptive physical education program for those for whom a regular program is not appropriate. The district also supports the Special Olympics program.
"Not having had the opportunity to review the guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, we are not aware of any changes or additions that may need to be made to our current practice," Rogers said.
Schools should provide additional opportunities for athletics for disabled students for whom the traditional athletic program is inappropriate, the letter says.
"Schools may require a level of skill or ability for participation in a competitive program or activity; equal opportunity does not mean, for example, that every student with a disability is guaranteed a spot on an athletic team for which other students must try out," the letter states.
The letter was released in response to a 2010 U.S. Government Accountability Office report that many disabled students still don't get the opportunity to participate in sports because of presumptions and stereotypes about their abilities.
"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," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Some are hailing the guidance as the "Title IX" for people with disabilities. Title IX opened doors for women and girls to have equal opportunity to participate in sports in public schools.
But Lori Long, executive director of Tulsa's Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges, said it doesn't come near that 1972 landmark legislation.
"I don't think it's that cut and dry," she said.
School administrators in other parts of the country have said this could be costly for already cash-strapped districts.
Cost is "always going to be an issue anytime you have something different," Long said. "We have to go back to the fact that why should they be separated? It really is also about inclusion."
A "reasonable modification" could mean providing a visual cue alongside the starter pistol for hearing-impaired students who are fast enough to qualify for the track team, the letter says.
Or it could mean waiving the "two-handed touch" rule in swim meets for a one-armed swimmer who qualifies for the swim team.
"They have to be able to meet the minimum qualifications anyway, especially if you look at it from a competitive side," Long said. "But if reasonable accommodations could be made for them to compete, then by all means they should be given the opportunity to do so."
Kim Archer 918-581-8315