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On the Rise
Students with Disabilities Get More Sports Opportunities

By Deborah L. Vence

Students with disabilities will have more chances to participate in sports thanks to new guidance issued earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

A Dear Colleague Letter issued by the OCR clarifies schools' responsibilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehab Act) to provide athletic opportunities for students with disabilities.

While the letter requires that a more holistic approach be used by schools that want to comply with the Rehab Act, it also ensures that schools look "broadly and proactively" to include students with disabilities in athletic programs in order to "satisfy their civil rights obligations to provide equal educational opportunities." The policies apply to all levels of education, including both interscholastic and intercollegiate athletic opportunities.

"This guidance is a landmark moment for individuals with disabilities. It sends a loud message to educational institutions that students with disabilities must be provided opportunities for physical activity and sports equal to those afforded to students without disabilities," said Terri Lakowski, Esq., CEO, Active Policy Solutions, Washington. "OCR's leadership and action will pave the way for students with disabilities in sports the same way that Title IX has done for women."

The guidance specifically accomplishes three things:

  • Clarifies when and how schools must include students with disabilities in mainstream athletic programs.
  • Defines what true equal treatment of student athletes with disabilities means.
  • Encourages and provides a road map for schools to create adapted programs for students with disabilities.

The creation of the new guidance comes after a study in 2010 from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The study had revealed that students with disabilities get fewer opportunities for physical activity and sports participation compared with students who don't have disabilities. Consequently, the GAO had called on the Department of Education to provide resources to assist states and schools in serving students with disabilities in physical activity settings. To boot, the GAO report called for a clarification of schools' responsibilities to provide athletic opportunities for students under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

"The benefits of athletic and physical education programs are equally important for students with disabilities as they are for all students," Lakowski said.

"Physical activity is an effective intervention to addressing the obesity epidemic that is especially problematic for individuals with disabilities, as 50 percent of people with disabilities do not engage in any physical activity," she said.

"Physical activity participation helps reduce obesity and prevent health problems, such as heart disease, breast cancer and debilitating stress-related illnesses like depression," she added. "Individuals with disabilities who participate in sports have higher self-esteem, better body images and higher rates of academic success; are more confident and more likely to graduate from high school and matriculate in college; and experience greater career success and more options."

While the new guidance is a victory for students with disabilities, the pursuit to help such students gain more sports opportunities has been going on for some time.

The Inclusive Fitness Coalition (IFC), led by Lakowski, has been at the forefront of efforts for almost 10 years to help advance the rights of individuals with disabilities in school-based sports and physical activity programs. (The IFC is a national coalition of more than 200 organizations that are committed to addressing the policy, environmental and societal issues that are associated with lack of inclusion and access to physical activity among people with disabilities.)

The fact is, "Inclusion in athletics is how children learn from each other, build social skills, and optimize their growth and development," stated James Rimmer, Ph.D., who co-chairs the IFC and directs the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, in a January press release.

He went on to say, "The OCR guidance is a clear indication that athletics is an extremely important part of our educational system and that youth and young adults with disabilities must be afforded the same opportunities as their non-disabled peers. This should be part of a national strategy to lower obesity rates, which are disproportionately higher among youth with disabilities compared to their non-disabled peers."

Studies, in fact, have indicated that 56 percent of people with disabilities do not engage in any physical activity, compared with 36 percent of people without disabilities. Moreover, only 23 percent of people with disabilities are active for 30 minutes three or more times per week.

In addition, 1.5 million first graders through twelfth graders have physical impairments, and are not included in athletic competitions. Although individuals with disabilities have made significant gains since the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, students with disabilities still are facing unfairness in physical activity programs and sports programs—particularly in educational institutions.

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