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OCR Guidance on Accommodating Students With Disabilities in Athletics

Alyssa Keehan, Esq.
October 2020
Highlights of the “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a “Dear Colleague” letter  interpreting federal law requirements for public school athletic participation by students with disabilities. Review your procedures to ensure you comply with the letter. Determine whether program changes are necessary so students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate.

Highlights of the Letter

The letter outlines three major points for schools:

  1. Don’t base decisions about students’ ability to participate on generalizations, assumptions, or stereotypes about disabilities. Schools must evaluate students individually and apply the same criteria to everyone.
  2. Give students with disabilities equal opportunities to participate in extracurricular athletics. Make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures. Provide necessary aids and services unless doing so would fundamentally alter the athletic activity. A “fundamental alteration” would change an essential aspect of the sport or give a disabled competitor an unfair advantage. For example, providing a visual cue in addition to the starter’s pistol to a hearing-impaired sprinter would not alter the race’s nature and would not give that student an unfair advantage.
  3. Strongly consider creating athletic opportunities for disabled students who can’t participate in existing athletics programs even with reasonable modifications or necessary aids and services. These additional opportunities should receive support equal to other school sports. For example, OCR suggests disability-specific teams such as wheelchair basketball. If your school lacks sufficient students with disabilities to field a team, consider developing or participating in a district-wide team.

Letter Raises Several Questions

  • Must every disabled student make the team? No. OCR clarifies that schools can continue requiring a particular skill or ability level for any student to participate in a “selective or competitive” sport if criteria used aren’t discriminatory. Schools also can adopt necessary safety standards but must consider whether making reasonable modifications or providing aids and services to a disabled student would enable the student to participate safely.
  • Can schools automatically create separate teams for all students with disabilities? No. OCR notes that under federal law, providing unnecessarily separate or different services to students with disabilities is discriminatory. You must individually assess each student’s needs and abilities.
  • How will the letter affect higher education? This is unclear. Although acknowledging that examples used in the letter all relate to primary and secondary schools, OCR states that the same principles apply to postsecondary athletics.
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