A game changer? OCR issues new guidance for students with disabilities in extracurricular athletics


On Friday, January 25, 2013, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a new formal guidance (in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter) for public elementary and secondary schools and colleges and universities regarding their obligation to provide athletic opportunities for students with disabilities. Many are calling this a “landmark directive” and are suggesting that the Department’s guidance will have as significant an impact on athletic opportunities for students with disabilities as Title IX created for female athletes.

The January 25th letter clarifies schools’ existing legal obligations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities. This means making reasonable modifications to the school’s extracurricular programs and activities and providing necessary aids and services, unless the school can show that doing so would result in a fundamental alteration of its programs or put student safety at risk.

Within the letter, OCR provides concrete examples of the types of reasonable modifications that schools may be required to make in order to ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular athletics. For example:

  • Using a visual cue along with a starter pistol for a student with hearing impairment who is on the track team, or
  • Providing after school nursing assistance (such as glucose testing and monitoring) to enable a student with diabetes to participate in an after school athletic program.

The letter also cautions schools that they cannot limit athletic opportunities due to generalizations and stereotypes about students with disabilities and encourages them to “work with their communities and athletic associations to develop broad opportunities to include students with disabilities in all extracurricular athletic programs.”

The full text of OCR’s new “Dear Colleague” letter can be accessed on the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights website.

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