In a 13-page directive issued January 25, the U.S. Department of Education informed all public schools they must either include students with disabilities in school-sponsored athletic programs or provide "equal alternative options."
Similar to Title IX, which requires equal athletic opportunities for women, the new directive requires schools to either make "reasonable modifications" to their athletics programs necessary to allow students with disabilities to participate or provide equally-supported alternative athletic programs for students with disabilities.
Issued under the authority of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the directive applies to all public schools and colleges that receive federal funds and offer extracurricular, interscholastic, intramural, or intercollegiate athletics.
"Sports can provide invaluable lessons in discipline, selflessness, passion and courage, and this guidance will help schools ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to benefit from the life lessons they can learn on the playing field or on the court," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a press release.
The directive does not require schools to guarantee every student with a disability a spot on a team for which other students must try out. It does, however, require schools to "afford ... students with disabilities an equal opportunity for participation in extracurricular athletics in an integrated manner to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of the student."
The directive requires schools to make "reasonable modifications" to their policies, practices and procedures whenever "such modifications are necessary to ensure equal opportunity," unless the school can show the modification would result in a fundamental change in the nature of the sport.
"Federal civil rights laws require schools to provide equal opportunities, not give anyone an unfair head start. So 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," explained Duncan. "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."