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.

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