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Lawyers’ Committee Praises OCR for Release of Federal Guidance On Rights of Students with Disabilities to Equal Access to Athletic Programs

February 7, 2013  |  Lawyers' Committee

On January 25, 2013, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released federal guidance for school districts across the country to ensure equal access to educational opportunities to students with disabilities.  The guidance clarifies the obligation to provide all students, including those with disabilities, with equal access to extracurricular athletics.  The Dear Colleague letter issued by Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Seth Galanther, informs schools that students with disabilities must be afforded equal opportunity to participate in athletic programs, even if this requires reasonable modifications.  By doing so, OCR recognizes that extracurricular athletics are a critical component of our education system.

The landmark directive comes two and a half years after a 2010 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that students with disabilities were being denied equal access to the social and health benefits afforded by participation in school athletics.  In order to reverse this trend, OCR followed the recommendations of the GAO to clarify a school's responsibilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 regarding the provision of extracurricular athletics.  Section 504 is a federal law designed to protect the rights of disabled individuals in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.

The letter provides an overview of the obligations of schools under Section 504, while also cautioning against making decisions based on generalizations or stereotypes.  In addition, the letter describes specific Section 504 regulations that pertain to ensuring equal opportunity for participation in extracurricular activities, as well as discusses when separate or different athletic opportunities are appropriate.  Advocates for disability rights believe this guidance is a "game changer," which could lead to profound results for students with disabilities, results comparable to those offered to women and girls by the passage of Title IX.

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