WASHINGTON (AP) — Students with disabilities must be given a fair shot to play on a traditional sports team or have their own leagues, the Education Department says.
Disabled students who want to play for their school could join traditional teams if officials can make "reasonable modifications" to accommodate them. If those adjustments would fundamentally alter a sport or give the student an advantage, the department is directing the school to create parallel athletic programs that have comparable standing to traditional programs.
"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 announcing the new guidance Friday.
The groundbreaking order is reminiscent of the Title IX expansion of athletic opportunities for girls and women four decades ago and could bring sweeping changes to school budgets and locker rooms for years to come.
Activists cheered the changes.
"This is a landmark moment for students with disabilities. This will do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women," said Terri Lakowski, who for a decade led a coalition pushing for the changes. "This is a huge victory."
It's not clear whether the new guidelines will spark a sudden uptick in sports participation. There was a big increase in female participation in sports after Title IX guidance instructed schools to treat female athletics on par with male teams. That led many schools to cut some men's teams, arguing that it was necessary to be able to pay for women's teams.
Education Department officials emphasized they did not intend to change sports traditions dramatically or guarantee students with disabilities a spot on competitive teams. Instead, they insisted schools may not exclude students based on their disabilities if they can keep up with their classmates.