Friday, January 25, 2013

Office of Civil Rights issues new guidelines to include students with disabilities in sports

The U.S. Department of Education declared today that schools must provide students with disabilities a fair opportunity to participate in athletic activities. 

Although the Department of Education does not foresee immediate dramatic changes, the new guidelines should probe schools to make adjustments and open doors for the students who have been—despite the previously existing ant-discrimination laws—precluded from participation.   

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) already prohibits the exclusion of persons with disability from programs and activities at federally funded institutions. But the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) took a step further today and provided specific examples on how institutions should ensure that they accommodate students with disabilities.

The OCR stated that the letter does not “add requirements to applicable law, but provides information and examples to inform recipients [school officials] about how OCR evaluates whether covered entities are complying with their legal obligations” (See full letter here.)

Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, wrote on his blog that students with disabilities are often excluded from sports based on incorrect judgments, generalizations and stereotypes. “This is simply wrong,” Duncan wrote.

The letter requires school officials to make “reasonable modifications” to ensure that students with disabilities have equal opportunity to participate in sports.

According to Gregg Toppo’s article for USA Today, the letter was long overdue—particularly because a report from 2010 indicated that students with disabilities participated in athletics at substantially lower rates than students without disabilities. The clarification on how to enforce positive change was, thus, in order.

Some activist compared the enforcement initiatives to Title IX, an education amendment that prohibits discrimination based on sex. Title IX is credited with the tremendous increase of athletic opportunities for women and a cultural shift about women’s place in sports.

“This is a landmark moment for students with disabilities. This will do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women. This is a huge victory,” Terri Lakowski, who has been heavily involved with coalition building and education around civil rights issues, told the Associated Press.

The Women’s Sports Foundation announced that this letter is actually a “direct result of Title IX.”

It might take some time to enforce the structural changes. But a legislative boost might eventually result in a more inclusive sporting environment and increased participation for the students who are relegated to the margins in our society.  

Perhaps increased opportunities will also eventually challenge the way we think about sport in our culture. Perhaps, such change will also encourage us to re-think the values we associate with sport—the values that contributed to the subjugation of many. 

-- Dunja Antunovic

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