U.S. Dept. of Education provides guidance on extracurricular and non-academic services

On Friday, January 25, the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued new guidance that ordered schools across the country to provide equal opportunity for students with disabilities to participate in extracurricular activities. Among other aspects of the guidance, States are urged to help school districts work with community organizations to increase athletic opportunities for students with disabilities, such as opportunities outside of the existing extracurricular athletic program.

According to Education Secretary Arnie Duncan, “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.” The guidance letter provides information with regards to reasonable modifications that schools may be required to make to existing policies, practices, or procedures for students with intellectual, developmental, physical, or any other type of disability.

Examples of such modifications include:

The allowance of a visual cue alongside a starter pistol to allow a student with a hearing impairment who is fast enough to qualify for the track team the opportunity to compete.

The waiver of a rule requiring the “two-hand touch” finish in swim events so that a one-armed swimmer with the requisite ability can participate at swim meets.

The guidance also notes that the law does not require that a student with a disability be allowed to participate in any selective or competitive program offered by a school district, so long as the selection or competition criteria are not discriminatory. This is particularly important if the student is not attending the school he or she would if not disabled (i.e. home school). Issues have arisen around students being denied access to after school and extracurricular activities because the buses don’t transport to all locations after school ends, which would cause children to wait for parents to come and pick them up at the end of an activity.

The guidance came after a GAO report found that students with disabilities were not being afforded equal opportunities to participate in extracurricular athletics in public elementary and secondary schools. “To ensure that students with disabilities consistently have opportunities to participate in extracurricular athletics equal to those of other students, the GAO recommended that the United States Department of Education clarify and communicate schools’ responsibilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 regarding the provision of extracurricular athletics.” With this guidance The Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which is responsible for enforcing Section 504, developed the guidance which was then sent to State Directors of Special Education across the country.

Some of the key points made in the report included:

A school district may not operate its program or activity on the basis of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes about disability generally, or specific disabilities in particular. A school district also may not rely on generalizations about what students with a type of disability are capable of—one student with a certain type of disability may not be able to play a certain type of sport, but another student with the same disability may be able to play that sport.

While districts must provide appropriate modifications and those aids and services necessary to ensure an equal opportunity to participate, unless the school district can show that doing so would be a fundamental alteration to its program, they may adopt bona fide safety standards needed to implement its extracurricular athletic program or activity.

The provision of extracurricular athletics must be provided in such a way as to ensure that a student with a disability participates with students without disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of that student with a disability.

Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has disseminated the guidance from the U.S. Department of Education as well as providing a short letter they sent out February 26, 2013 in conjunction with Washington Interscholastic Activities Association and Washington State Special Olympics letting districts know they were meeting to figure out the “practical implication of this guidance in Washington state.”

The continued efforts of the State and local districts to implement this guidance will allow many students who previously did not have access the opportunity to now participate and enjoy the relationships and social aspects, as well as learning, that come from participating in extracurricular activities.

For those that are interested in learning more about your child’s rights regarding participation in extracurricular activities, please contact PAVE by email at pave@wapave.org or by phone (253)565-2266 for pamphlets available courtesy PACER.

Football Photo by U.S. Army (familymwr) via flickr.com

School Sports Photo by Graham Richardson (didbygraham) via flickr.com