Viewpoint: What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About Special-Ed Sports

Federal guidelines don't mandate new teams, but could lead to a more inclusive society

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When I heard last week that the U.S. Department of Education was releasing new guidelines about what schools must do to provide access to school sports for disabled students, I was in Charlottesville, Va., watching the University of Virginia’s women’s basketball team throttle Boston College. And in a nice bit of coincidence, the halftime show for that game was an exhibition match of adult wheelchair basketball. Conservative pundits fearing federal overreach claim that President Obama is inventing a right to wheelchair basketball, that he’s forcing schools to start up such teams. He’s not. But the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is doing something important, and hopefully it will prod more schools to give more students a way to participate in sports.

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Here’s the back story: In 1973 Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act, which protects the rights of disabled students in schools and is the underpinning of today’s special-education programs. Included in its many provisions is one that requires equal opportunity for participation in extracurricular activities. Schools haven’t always met that obligation, and one reason for this, according to a 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office, is that administrators are confused about what the guidelines expect schools and districts to do. The report also found that special-education students were less likely to participate in sports. (This may seem obvious on its face, but it’s important to note that most students in special education do not have severe physical or mental challenges.) So now, some two years later — this is the government, after all — the Education Department is providing some clarity. In other words, these are not new requirements or mandates, but rather an explanation of existing law and policy.

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Most of it is common sense. Sports teams are competitive entrance activities, and skill matters most in decisions about who gets to play; nothing in the law changes that. But the guidance clarifies that schools can — and should — provide reasonable accommodations for special-needs athletes, such as in a track meet, using a flag in addition to a starting pistol to level the field for hearing-impaired students. It’s not only the right thing to do; it’s also the fiscally prudent one. A $10 flag is a lot cheaper than a lawsuit.

So despite the assertions of advocates for disabled athletes and the critiques from conservatives, the new guidance is not the equivalent of Title IX, the 1972 federal law requiring equitable participation opportunities for girls and women in school activities including sports. But that law offers useful context. Title IX led to absurd bean counting exercises at some of our nation’s colleges and universities. It also benefited millions of women and girls, who are helped in multiple ways by playing sports. Similarly, the nation’s special-education law, now called IDEA, is complicated and messy and has been since its enactment in 1975. Yet no one argues special-education laws did not spur substantial improvements in how students with special needs are educated, and the data show it.  So while efforts to expand access to sports for disabled students will no doubt lead to some genuine complexities and trade-offs (and some inane decisions by education officials and ridiculous requests from advocates), those efforts will also lead to a more inclusive society.

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The new guidance makes clear that schools should work together to ensure that, if there is sufficient interest among disabled students in a district, these students are provided opportunities to participate in alternative sports, such as wheelchair tennis or, yes, wheelchair basketball. Contrary to the hysterics, the guidelines are not rigid requirements mandating alternative teams. And in states such as Maryland and Minnesota that have specific rules and laws already in place to ensure equitable access, the policy is not causing serious problems. In Maryland, in addition to increasing access to high school sports, districts have created several “corollary” teams in which disabled students can play alongside non-disabled peers in sports like bocce, handball, and softball.

More fundamentally, given the relatively small scale of what we’re talking about here, parents and others worried about the dilution of dollars for school athletics should simply pause and ask themselves: what if the children we’re talking about were yours?