Watching Kyle Fox dribble the basketball down the court, no one would know he's 95 percent deaf in both ears. His teammates, who have devised a system of numerical hand motions to communicate different plays to him, would be the give-away. Fox, a junior at Burns High School in Laramie, Wyo., wears a cochlear implant tucked into his sweatband, but he relies on an interpreter's signs to comprehend his coach's directives.
His school district makes accommodations for Fox’s disability by allowing him to have a sign-language interpreter, and his coach values him as a crucial member of the team. But his story isn’t unusual – or at least it’s not supposed to be. In fact, for forty years, all public school districts have been required by federal law to provide such accommodations to students with disabilities, but not all districts are aware of their legal responsibility or enforce it.
A 40 year old law ensures equal access to sports
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which protects equal access to educational opportunities, issued a letter of guidance clarifying school districts’ legal obligation to provide equal access to extracurricular activities to all students. Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, specifically section 504, disabled students with equal athletic ability have an equal right to participate in their schools’ extracurricular activities.
"Participation in extracurricular athletics can be a critical part of a student's overall educational experience,” said Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary for the OCR. "Schools must ensure equal access to that rewarding experience for students with disabilities."
What must schools do to ensure equal access?
The OCR issued the clarification in response to a 2010 government report that found students with what it termed “disabilities” were not participating in extracurricular athletics at the same rate as their peers -- in some cases, they were participating 56 percent less often. Students with disabilities include those whose differences wouldn’t directly affect their athletic performance, such as students with dyslexia, autism and intellectual impairments.
The report recommended the OCR make sure all districts were aware of their legal obligations to provide equal access and suggested several “reasonable modifications” schools could make, such as allowing starter pistols to be paired with visual cues, and in swimming, making exceptions to the two-hand-touch on the finish wall for students with only one hand.
In cases where such an accommodation is not possible, would significantly change the sport, or confer an advantage, schools are required to provide a separate extracurricular activity fully accessible to those students.
Critics oppose government interference
Not everyone is happy to have the federal government clarifying and communicating these legal obligations, however. Some political conservatives see the OCR’s recent letter of guidance as overreach into what they think should be policy decided by individual school districts.
Critics have accused the Department of Education of forcing schools to create separate extracurricular activities for students with physical and learning differences if they want to keep federal funding. Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy nonprofit organization, accused the Obama administration of “invent[ing] a right to wheelchair basketball.”
The Department of Education disputes this interpretation. “Some readers have misconstrued the guidance as requiring school districts to offer separate or different athletic opportunities for students with disabilities. It does not. The guidance urges, but does not require, such separate opportunities,” Daren Briscoe, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
Currently, only 12 states have started athletic programs for students with disabilities, according to Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA, a non-profit that sponsors athletic activities for people with disabilities. Kirk praised the Department of Education’s guidance letter as a “landmark” equal to the federal Title IX ruling that made extracurricular athletics accessible to women.