In what is being compared with Title IX for women’s athletics, the U.S. Education Department will require schools to make "reasonable modifications" for students with disabilities, or create parallel athletic programs that have comparable standing to the mainstream programs, The Associated Press reported.
Education Department officials say they won’t change sports' traditions dramatically or guarantee students with disabilities a spot on competitive teams. Instead, they insisted schools cannot exclude students based on their disabilities if they can keep up with their classmates.
"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 this week.
Federal laws require states to provide a free public education to all students, and bans schools that receive federal funds from discriminating against students with disabilities. The new directive from the Education Department's civil rights division also tells schools and colleges that access to interscholastic, intramural and intercollegiate athletics is a right.
"This is historic," said Bev Vaughn, the executive director of the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs, a nonprofit group that works with schools to set up sports programs for students with disabilities. "It's going to open up a whole new door of opportunity to our nation's schoolchildren with disabilities."
There is no deadline for schools to comply with the new disabilities directive, but the move is being applauded.
"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 led a coalition pushing for the changes for a decade.