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Questions to consider when including students with disabilities in mainstream athletic programs

The Office for Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague Letter in January of 2013 addressing schools' obligations to provide extracurricular athletic opportunities for students with disabilities. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, this guidance clarified how schools should include students with disabilities in mainstream athletic programs, defined what equal treatment of student athletes with disabilities means, and provided a road map to create adapted athletic programs for students with disabilities.


Fueled by the results of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation on how physical education and extracurricular athletic opportunities for students with disabilities are provided in schools, the following findings were reported:

  1. There must be safe and effective use of sport equipment
  2. Program personnel need to be highly qualified and utilize appropriate teaching techniques to include behavior management skills
  3. Curriculum needs to be accessible
  4. Assessment, progress, and achievement strategies need to meet the needs of youth with disabilities


Laws requiring integration of students with disabilities could not be clearer; students with disabilities should have meaningful participation, equal opportunities and inclusion with students without disabilities to the maximum extent possible.


Some basic questions to consider include the following:


Do schools have an obligation to provide equal extracurricular athletic opportunities for students with disabilities? Certainly; schools are required to provide students with disabilities equal opportunities to participate in extracurricular sporting activities—including club, varsity and intramural sports programs.


What does an equal opportunity for participation mean? Schools must conduct an individualized assessment on the student with a disability to determine how to provide reasonable accommodations to the fullest extent possible in athletic programs. School systems should be able to modify existing practices or rules in order to include a student with a disability.


What qualifies as an individualized assessment of a student with disability? An individualized assessment means that school systems must be able to evaluate, on a case by case basis, a student with a disability based on the specific nature of their disability and the specific accommodations needed for them to participate in the athletic program.


What determines whether an accommodation that the student with disability requests is reasonable? A reasonable accommodation is one that does not fundamentally change the essential competition and nature of the sport or gives the student with a disability a competitive advantage over non?disabled competitors.


Should schools create adapted teams or programs for individuals with disabilities? Yes, whenever there are students with disabilities who cannot participate in the existing athletics programs even with reasonable accommodations.


How can schools create adapted teams when the numbers of students with disabilities are insufficient to field a team? When the number of students with disabilities at an individual school is insufficient to field a team, school systems may: (a) develop district?wide teams, (b) allow all players to compete in a wheelchair to help level the playing field, (c) mix male and female students on teams together, (d) consider combining elementary through high school age students, based on functional ability, on one team, or ( e) offer “allied sports” teams on which students with disabilities participate with students without disabilities.


So where should a school district start to develop these adapted sports teams? Why not consider following the traditional model of sport development for students without disabilities and start with the physical education teacher? A traditional approach for teaching sport skills is within a school based physical education curriculum. The same can be true for teaching students with disabilities; sport skills can be addressed in a general physical education curriculum if one considers the overlap in sporting opportunities and skills that are more similar than different between traditional and disability sport.


In the text, Teaching Disability Sport: A Guide for the Physical Educators, teachers will learn how sports, and the skills used to play these sports, overlap and can be taught within a general physical education curriculum. Consider the skills needed in basketball i.e., pass, dribble, shoot, and ball movement; the same skills are needed to play wheelchair basketball. What about volleyball? The skills of passing, serving, blocking, and hitting are all taught in a general physical education unit for student without disabilities. The sport of sitting volleyball requires the same skills with few rule or equipment modifications and can be taught to students with and without disabilities.


Teaching Disability Sport: A Guide for the Physical Educators provides teachers with complete information on eight disability sports, plus a matrix that cross-references all the skills for each sport with a traditional sport. In addition, the text provides assessments for every skill to help teachers address individualized assessment and reasonable accommodations as suggested in the OCR guidance document. Teaching Disability Sport: A Guide for the Physical Educators includes a Program Planning section that highlights curriculum development, assessment, and program evaluation. Each sport includes a game-by-skill level index for students considered low, moderate, or high functioning, along with over 200 games presented in a lesson plan template.  Finally, Teaching Disability Sport: A Guide for the Physical Educators includes a DVD of selected sport activities played by students with and without disabilities in a general physical education class.


One of the best resources to address the concern of the OCR Dear Colleague document, and the creation of an adapted sport program, is the general physical educator. Teaching disability sports in your general physical education is a way to provide all students with the basic skill sets to move forward into an extracurricular athletic school based programs. As previously mentioned, traditional sporting skills are taught in physical education, refined in athletics and used to participate in competition; why not consider the same paradigm for students with disabilities? Teaching Disability Sport: A Guide for the Physical Educators can help all students see “sport as sport” and create equal opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in your school's extracurricular club, varsity or intramural programs.