Sports are a civil right for disabled, U.S. Education Department says
Those types of accommodations could be a model for schools and colleges now looking to incorporate students with disabilities onto sports teams. For instance, track and field officials could use a visual cue for a deaf runner to begin a race.
Some states already offer such programs. Maryland, for instance, passed a law in 2008 that required schools to create equal opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in physical education programs and play on mainstream athletic teams. And Minnesota awards state titles for disabled student athletes in six sports.
Increasingly, those with disabilities are finding spots on their schools' teams.
"I heard about some of the other people who joined their track teams in other states. I wanted to try to do that," said 15-year-old Casey Followay, who competes on his Ohio high school track team in a racing wheelchair.
Current rules require Followay to race on his own, without competitors running alongside him. He said he hopes the Education Department guidance will change that and he can compete against runners.
"It's going to give me the chance to compete against kids at my level," he said.
In cases where students with disabilities need more serious changes, a separate league could be required.
Although the letter is directed to elementary and secondary schools and the department hasn't provided comparable guidance to colleges, some of the principles in the letter will be read closely by administrators in higher education, said Scott Lissner, the Americans with Disabilities coordinator at Ohio State University and president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability.
"The logic that's in there applies us to us as well as it does to K-12, for the most part," Lissner said.
While slightly different portions of civil rights law apply to colleges and universities, "their approach in this letter was really more about the basic underlying equity and civil rights issues" that colleges also must ensure they're applying to pass muster under the law.
Generally, Lissner said, as colleges review their policies, the effects would more likely be felt in intramural and club sports programs on campus than intercollegiate ones, Lissner said. That's because relatively few people can meet the standards to compete in intercollegiate sports, and nothing in the guidance requires a change in such standards. But the purpose of intramural and club sports is broader, and colleges may have to do more to ensure students with disabilities aren't deprived of a chance to compete.
Some cautioned that the first few years would bring fits and starts.
"Is it easy? No," said Brad Hedrick, director of disability services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and himself a hall-of-famer in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. "In most places, you're beginning from an inertial moment. But it is feasible and possible that a meaningful and viable programming can be created."
Establishing students' needs would be the first step, followed by training for educators and coaches.
"We need to determine how many children would qualify and then look to where kids can be integrated onto traditional teams appropriately. Where we can't, then we need to add an adaptive program," said Vaughn, who has advised states and districts how to be more inclusive.
"Typically, the larger school districts realistically could field a varsity and junior varsity team in each sport. In more rural areas, we would do a regional team. It's not going to overwhelm our schools or districts. It's just going to take some solid planning and commitment."
Associated Press Education Writer Justin Pope contributed to this report.
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