Ed Dept: Disabled have right to compete in sports

Disabled students must have “equal access” to school sports, the U.S. Education Department ruled Friday. If there’s no “reasonable” way to include disabled athletes on school teams, schools must set up separate programs.

“Participation in extracurricular athletics can be a critical part of a student’s overall educational experience,” said Seth Galanter, of the department’s civil rights office. “Schools must ensure equal access to that rewarding experience for students with disabilities,” he added.

The directive doesn’t require schools to open sports teams to everyone, regardless of athletic ability, officials said. But it’s not all clear what will be considered “reasonable.” One example — providing “visual clues” in addition to a starter pistol to allow hearing disabled students to compete in track events — seems like the sort of thing any school would and should do. The second — waiving the “two-hand touch” finish at swim meets to allow one-armed swimmers to compete — also seems fair. But it raises a question: Can a one-armed student swim fast enough to make the team?

In 1972, Title IX forced schools to offer equal athletic opportunities to girls. But there are lots of girls in high schools. There aren’t that many one-armed students who want to compete in swimming.

It was also welcomed by disabled student competitors, among them Casey Followay, a 15-year-old high school track athlete confined to a wheelchair by a birth defect, who under current rules, has to race on his own.

“This will help me become a better athlete conditioning- wise, because I have something to push for,” said Followay, who filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights in 2011 asking that he be allowed to run alongside, but not against, the able-bodied.

If he’s not running against able-bodied runners, is he really on the team? He needs to compete against other wheelchair athletes. Schools are supposed to work with community groups to set up regional teams, if they don’t have enough disabled athletes in each sport. That could be expensive.

“The problem is this was done without any deliberation in Congress and no public input and it is not clear how expansive it will be,” says Fordham’s Mike Petrilli. “Just how far must a school district go to be compliant?”

Expect lawsuits charging “separate and unequal” sports opportunities for disabled students, predicts Rick Hess in When Good Intentions Run Amok.

About Joanne


  1. Crimson Wife says:

    Perhaps the school could give varsity honors to disabled students who compete in the existing Special Olympics or Paralympic programs? It seems reasonable to make a disabled athlete who competes in Special Olympics or Paralympics an honorary member of the school’s varsity team in the same sport.

  2. Kids with hearing loss were being given hand signals back in the ’50’s. No brainer. I agree that the lack of consultation shows poor policy sense. Park Districts and special recreation districts, being larger than individual school attendance areas, are well-situated to provide in-school or intra-school wheelchair sports and other adapted sports. Many are doing so already.

  3. cranberry says:

    If “participation in extracurricular athletics can be a critical part of a student’s educational experience,” then the only answer is to make all sports teams “no cut” teams. Anything less would be difficult to defend.

    Of course, some sports, such as swimming and soccer, may be more competitive on private club teams. Not offering such sports through schools would not mean students would not be able to play those sports. As many schools in our area charge athletic fees, it’s not even guaranteed that high school sports would be less expensive than club sports.

  4. Mandated accommodations for the disabled have become unreasonable.

    If a kid in a wheelchair must be provided an alternative 50-yard dash to compete in, what about kids not in wheelchairs who just run slowly, through no fault of their own? Should schools have basketball teams for high school boys below 5.5 ft tall?

  5. Idiotic; no non-disabled kid has a “right” to make the team. Where accommodation is REASONABLE, it is already being provided; my DD had a kid with CP on her swim team and he was always given balance assistance getting on the block and taking his stance. She also encountered deaf swimmers, so a starting light was used with the gun. No problem.

    Also, in the wheelchair track example, the presence of a wheelchair on the track would be a significant hazard to “regular” runners; thus increasing their chance of injury. This would also be true of other sports, such as basketball and volleyball.

    This stupidity provides a great opportunity to remove all extracurriculars from schools. Let parks and rec and private clubs run them.

    • Wouldn’t depend on if the sports are no cut? Where I live all of the sports (in public school) are no cut for junior varsity. You may spend almost all of your time on the bench or swimming/running relays but anyone can be part of the team. Same for choir, band and orchestra. There are more elite audition groups, but everyone can participate in the non-audition section.
      So often there are students with special needs both physical and intellectual.
      I haven’t seen any wheelchairs racing runners though. I would just think that a student in a wheel chair would rather participate in events that were truly competitive (ie against other people in wheelchairs).

      • A no-cut policy for JV-level activities may make sense in small schools, but in high schools with 500+ kids per grade, it’s logistically impossible – and there are LOTS of schools that size and bigger. We lived in an area where two of the schools my kids competed against had 1000 kids per grade.

        • My school had/has around 400 per grade, but the other area schools range from 300-700+ per grade. Generally there is the addition of a Freshman team or Freshman and Sophomore teams.
          My swim team had multiple heats of the free relay. It may not be ideal, but it is possible.

  6. Stacy in NJ says:

    Most towns have community recreation departments and or YMCAs. Most offer non-competitive sports classes/teams or classes specifically for the disabled.

    • Where everyone makes the team, regardless if they’re actually able to compete. Amazing what passes for political correctness these days.

      I’m in favor of competition to encompass persons with disability, but given that public schools already are having budgetary problems, the federal gov’t certainly isn’t helping in this matter…


  7. Schools are low on money these days, right? (Or at least always claim to be.)

    Easy savings: Cut all sports, at least on the district’s dime.

    Instant Title IX compliance.

    If everyone complains, well… we end up with either tossing Title IX or sports funded by not-tax-money. Either way, victory.

  8. “If he’s not running against able-bodied runners, is he really on the team?”

    Yes. He is. The truth is at the high school level, if you want to make varsity, you’d better have been doing a particular sport for several years intensively. Maybe this is another post, Joanne, but children are specializing at younger and younger ages in sports and academics.

    Our school has Varsity, Junior Varsity and what is known as “C” team. C team takes lower priority in matches of course but often our C team will compete with another school’s, and it doesn’t go toward school records or whatever but the children have a lot of fun and learn good sportsmanship. In fact, the coach makes sure there are volunteer opportunities (Harvester’s, homeless shelter, and so on) and has the young men read a book he has chosen and reviews it with them in the hopes of building good character.

    We pay to play sports here, so I’m sure it is subsidized somewhat by the taxpayer, but we are also contributing a fair bit and do fundraisers.

    • In my day, the football team had Varisity, JV, and Freshmen (or what was known as B-team), and in most cases, you worked your way from B-team to varsity, unless you were good enough to qualify for varsity as a 9th grader (freshman).

      That was quite rare in back in the late 70’s, btw.