The U.S. Department of Education has ruled that schools must either allow disabled students an opportunity to play in their regular sports leagues or set aside resources to create leagues that cater specifically to them. It is considered a landmark decision and a victory for disability advocates who have been fighting for an opportunity to play sports in their schools for years.
The ruling states that disabled students must be allowed to join sports teams already in existence if reasonable modifications could be made to accommodate them. If such accommodation isn't possible, then parallel athletic programs must be created.
"Sports can provide invaluable lessons in discipline, selflessness, passion and courage, and 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," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement announcing the new guidance Friday.
People are already likening the decision to the Title IX expansion which guaranteed equitable spending on sports programs for both genders. It is expected that this will lead to a complete overhaul of athletic programs in schools all over the country.
Activists cheered the changes.
"This is a landmark moment for students with disabilities. This will do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women," said Terri Lakowski, who for a decade led a coalition pushing for the changes. "This is a huge victory."
It's unclear what the impact of the decision might be in the short term, or if the change will lead to an increased rate of sports participation among the disabled and special needs students. The Title IX decision did lead to a growth in the number of women's sports teams in colleges and high schools and a loss of some sports programs for men.
The DOE explains that the intent of the ruling is not to tie the hands of athletic directors when it comes to competitive tryouts for their teams, but merely to stop the exclusion of disabled students based solely on their disability. If they are fit to compete, they should be allowed to, in other words.
The ruling appears to be based on the interpretation of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act which guaranteed free education to students with special needs and prohibited discrimination against the disabled by schools receiving federal funds.
Going further, the new directive from the Education Department's civil rights division explicitly tells schools and colleges that access to interscholastic, intramural and intercollegiate athletics is a right.