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Assess Extracurricular Modifications for Students With Disabilities

John Swinney, John Relias, and Jackie Gharapour Wernz
October 2020
Guidelines to help public school administrators determine appropriate modifications for after-school activities

Extracurricular activities teach students at public K-12 schools skills they don’t receive in the classroom. To ensure inclusivity, your school should make these opportunities available to students with disabilities.

Yet for even the most seasoned special education professionals, it can be tricky to identify appropriate modifications that provide students with disabilities equal access to extracurricular activities. To determine appropriate modifications, administrators should:

  • Evaluate the student’s qualification.
  • Determine the need for the changes.
  • Consider the impact on the activity.
  • Identify alternative forms of modifications.

Learn the Regulatory Requirements

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) requires public school districts to provide students with disabilities opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities equal to those of non-disabled peers.

Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) also require schools to provide students with disabilities a free, appropriate public education, and the IDEA specifically requires Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams to take steps to provide “nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities in the manner necessary to afford children with disabilities an equal opportunity for participation in those services and activities.”

When disagreements arise, it’s typically because of the Section 504 standard, especially the requirement that a school provide necessary aids, services, or reasonable modifications to allow students with disabilities equal access to an activity unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of the activity.

In a 2013 letter, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) clarified that school districts may create minimum requirements and tryouts for extracurricular activities if the selection criteria are not discriminatory. The letter also confirmed that schools are not required to create separate or different activities for students with disabilities. However, districts should consider developing regional teams and opportunities for students with disabilities who are not otherwise served by school offerings. For example, many districts now offer wheelchair basketball teams.

Assess the Need for Modifications

Offer extracurricular activities in a way that affords qualified students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate. Answer these questions to better identify when to implement modifications.

  1. Is this a qualified student with a disability?
    Section 504 requirements only apply to qualified students with disabilities (persons who are entitled to an education under state or federal law). For example, in many jurisdictions once people with a disability reach age 21, they are not entitled to an education under the law and therefore are not classified as qualified students.
  2. Is a modification necessary for equal opportunity?
    To determine whether modifications are needed, conduct an individualized inquiry. People with appropriate knowledge and expertise (such as the extracurricular sponsor, the student, the student’s teachers, and the student’s parents) should meet to determine whether there are reasonable modifications or aids and services that would provide the student equal access to the activity. To avoid unnecessary assumptions about how a disability may limit the student, use the same participation criteria for students with disabilities as you would for other students. For example, a chess team might reasonably limit participation to students who win 50% of games played in a tryout. However, if a student with limited sight tried out for the team one year, it would be unreasonable to create a new requirement that students have full vision.
  3. Would there be a fundamental alteration if the modification was allowed?
    If modifications are needed for students to participate, they must be allowed unless doing so would result in fundamentally altering the nature of the activity. To assess whether modifications would constitute fundamental alterations, consider whether changes would either:
    • Alter such an essential aspect of an activity that it would be unacceptable even if it affected all competitors equally (such as adding an extra base in baseball)
    • Give a student an unfair advantage over others
  4. Are other modifications, aids, or services available that would not be a fundamental alteration?
    If a requested modification would constitute a fundamental alteration, your school district must determine whether other modifications would permit the student’s participation. Below are sample modification requests that constitute fundamental alterations and alternate modifications that permit the student’s participation.

Student Requesting Accommodation

Fundamental Alteration

Alternate Modification

Archer with cerebral palsy

Modify the archery bow; this is not allowed per national standards.

Let the archer to use a stand to help her hold the bow.

Debater who is hard of hearing

Ask competitors to slow their speech.

Provide speech recognition software that can create live captions.

Swimmer born with one hand

Let the swimmer finish a race by just touching the wall with one hand when other team members are judged by a “two-hand touch” rule.

Let the swimmer finish a race by touching the wall with one hand while simultaneously having the other arm fully stretched forward.

If your school determines an activity modification is necessary to allow a student equal access but denies all modification requests, it may be appropriate for your school to allow an appeal of the assessment through your school, district, or state.

Because IDEA and Section 504 appellate procedures vary by jurisdiction, review your procedures with local legal counsel.

Additional Resources

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