Schools and Disabled Athletes

By Amy Kosanovich Dickerson

As administrators get ready to begin a new school year, school athletic fields likely will be buzzing with junior varsity tryouts and practices for the fall athletic season. With this new school year, challenging questions may arise regarding how to accommodate students with disabilities who want to participate in these sports. Can a student in a wheelchair join the football team? Can a student with multiple absences related to his disability still compete in cross-country meets? Can a 20-year-old student receiving special education services try out for the soccer team?

Administrators considering these questions also may have heard the legal buzz this past school year regarding the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights’ (OCR) recent “Dear Colleague Letter.” It provided guidance on accommodating students with disabilities in extracurricular athletic activities.

Through a series of examples and explanations, the guidance addresses the types of accommodations and services required to be provided to students with disabilities in school district extracurricular athletic activities, including club, intramural, and interscholastic athletics, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It also “urges” districts to expand opportunities for students with disabilities who are not otherwise qualified to participate in an existing extracurricular athletics program.

Many districts and school attorneys question whether OCR has correctly identified existing obligations or is, in fact, creating new obligations for public schools. The guidance specifically raises questions regarding its intended scope, including the implications regarding separate programs for students with disabilities. In fact, such questions prompted NSBA to request clarification from the Department of Education in May on many of the issues raised.

While we await such clarification, however, districts will continue to be responsible for serving students with disabilities as required under Section 504, with the recent OCR guidance as their new guidepost. Below are some of the questions that likely will be asked by administrators grappling with these issues this fall.

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