Office for Civil Rights Issues Guidance on Extracurricular Athletics for Students with Disabilities

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Last Friday, January 25, 2013, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a formal guidance to clarify the 504 responsibility of schools to ensure  that students with disabilities have equal access to participate in extracurricular athletics. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had issued a report that noted the health and social benefits all students derive from participating in extracurricular athletic activities in elementary and secondary schools. Unfortunately, the GAO report found that students with disabilities are not being afforded an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular athletics in schools. To help remedy that concern, the OCR issued this guidance.

The guidance provides an overview of the 504 obligations of public elementary and secondary schools and provides examples and suggestions for helping students with disabilities participate in athletics. The document warns schools against making decisions based on presumptions and stereotypes and discusses providing separate or different athletic opportunities for some students with disabilities.  For example:

  • A student has a learning disability and participated in middle school's lacrosse club. Upon entering 9th grade, her coach is aware of her learning disability and has a preconceived notion that students with learning disabilities would be unable to play under the  time constraints and pressures of an actual game. As a result, she does not play in actual games and the coach feels participating in practice is sufficient.  This violates 504. While the student does not have a right to participate in games, the coaches decision regarding her playing time must be based on the same criteria as other players and not on his presumptions about her disability.   

  • A high school student has a hearing impairment and wants to run for the school track team. During tryouts the races are started by a visual cue and the student makes the team. Races during practice are also started with a visual cue. Before the first scheduled meet, the student asks the district to use a visual cue at the meet simultaneously with the starter pistol sounds. But, the district denies the students request and the coach informs him he can only run in practices, not in meets. This violates 504, the use of a visual cue does not require a fundamental alteration in how the meets are conducted.

The guidance offers other examples and discusses offering separate or different athletic opportunities for students with disabilities. For example, school districts are increasingly creating disability-specific teams for sports such as wheelchair tennis or wheelchair basketball. When the number of students at a particular school is insufficient to field a team, school districts can also (1) develop regional teams (2) mix male and female students on team together; and (3) offer allied or unified  sports teams on which students without disabilities participate with students with disabilities.

In conclusion, OCR stresses its commitment to working with schools, students, families, community and advocacy organizations  athletic associations, and others to ensure students with disabilities are provided an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular athletics  Finally, OCR notes that individuals who believe they have been subjected to discrimination may file a complaint with OCR or in court.