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Obama Orders Schools to Give Disabled Kids Sports Access

Jan. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Children with disabilities must have “equal access” to school athletics, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration said today.

Schools are required to make “reasonable modifications” to let disabled children take part in sports, the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights said in a letter to districts. For example, a track team must give a visual cue alongside a starter pistol, so a deaf student could race.

The agency told school districts that such accommodations have long been required for extracurricular activities -- as they are for academics -- under a 1973 civil-rights law, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Yet, a 2010 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that schools exclude many students from athletics, and administrators told investigators they were unclear about their responsibilities.

“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,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement.

The government’s announcement has the potential to open up sports to the disabled in the same way that Title IX revolutionized women’s sports, said Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA, a Rockville, Maryland-based nonprofit organization that offers athletics for individuals with disabilities. Title IX is the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.

‘A Landmark’

Only 12 states, including Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, have established athletics programs for students with disabilities, according to Bauer.

“It’s a big day,” said Bauer, a skier, hiker, cyclist and Vietnam veteran who lost a leg to a grenade. “It’s a landmark.”

Duncan’s directive to school districts came in the form of a “guidance” letter, clarifying how the government interprets the law.

In an example, the government said a one-armed swimmer shouldn’t be subject to the “two-hand touch” finish rule in swim events. In another case, a school would be required to offer glucose testing and insulin administration to a diabetic student who wants to join in a school-sponsored gymnastics club.

Separate Programs

School districts aren’t required to include students with disabilities in “selective or competitive” programs, “so long as the selection or competition criteria are not discriminatory,” the agency said.

If students can’t participate in mainstream athletics, districts should then offer separate programs, such as wheelchair basketball or tennis, the government said. Those programs should be “supported” equally to other programs. To save money when few students are participating, schools and districts can form district-wide or regional teams, the Education Department said.

In the 2010 GAO report, investigators visited schools and found that students with disabilities participated in extracurricular athletics at rates as much as 56 percentage points lower than those in the general population. Districts varied in their levels of accommodations, and officials said they needed government guidance in what they should offer.

In the 2009-2010 school year, about 13 percent of the more than 49 million children in U.S. public schools had disabilities, including dyslexia, autism and intellectual impairments.

Public schools try to offer athletics programs for all students, though they struggle because Congress has failed to provide the money needed to pay for programs.

“In concept, we are supportive, but we remain concerned in terms of the funding that would be needed,” said Reggie Felton, assistant executive director at the Alexandria, Virginia-based National School Boards Association.

To contact the reporter on this story: John Hechinger in Boston at jhechinger@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at lwolfson@bloomberg.net

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