Elementary and secondary schools must ensure that students with disabilities can participate in sports or provide comparable options for those students, the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights said via a “dear colleague” letter Friday. While OCR applies the directive in the context of elementary and postsecondary education, it also states that students in postsecondary education enjoy the same rights.
(Note: This paragraph has been updated from a previous version.)
While the letter's immediate effect in higher education is unclear, its effects will be felt at colleges and universities, said Scott Lissner, president of AHEAD: Association on Higher Education and Disability.
Students who are otherwise qualified may not be prevented from trying out and playing on a team, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “Schools don’t have to change the essential rules of the game, and they don’t have to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage,” he wrote. “But they do need to make reasonable modifications (such as using a laser instead of a starter pistol to start a race so a deaf runner can compete) to ensure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else.”
Some compared the order to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and preceded a sharp increase in female athletic participation. Lissner said that while there aren’t often formal complaints of collegiate athletic programs discriminating against students with disabilities, the same was true of sexual discrimination before Title IX, and participation skyrocketed anyway.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if it was an untapped interest,” said Lissner, who is also Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator at Ohio State University. “In three, four, five years, we’re going to start seeing students who went through high school with participating in athletics at different levels readily available to them. Why wouldn’t they expect that when they get to college?”
Further, Lissner said, the directive relies on the entire Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, not just the sub-sections that apply specifically to primary and secondary education, suggesting the same principles should be applied at colleges and universities.