Guidelines released on how schools sports will include students with disabilities

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

The special education world is giddy this week with the release of new guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. These guidelines reinforce the federal requirements that children and college students with disabilities have equal access to afterschool sports and activities.

The guidelines were issued in response to a 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office that found that students with disabilities participate in sports at a much lower rate than students without disabilities.Pundits, advocates, and reporters jumped on the release. Time Magazine ran two separate articles. The reaction was ranged from exultant to condemnatory. For example, here’s Terri Lakowski, chairwoman of the Inclusive Fitness Coalition:

“This is a landmark moment for students with disabilities. This will do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women. This is a huge victory.”

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And here’s Mike Petrelli of the Fordham Foundation who wrote a widely-disseminated piece called “The Obama Administration Invents a Right to Wheelchair Basketball.” Writes Petrelli, “it boggles my mind that the Obama Administration, without an ounce of public debate or deliberation, without an iota of Congressional authorization or approval, could declare by fiat that public schools nationwide must provide such programs or risk their federal education funding. Talk about executive overreach! Talk about a regulatory rampage! Talk about an enormous unfunded mandate!”

Are the guidelines really comparable to the 1972 Title IX law that requires gender equity for educational programs that receive federal funds, and thus dramatically changed schools’ athletic offerings and budgetary priorities? Has the landscape similarly changed for students with disabilities? Is the Obama Administration flouting the democratic process?

No, no, and no.

Let’s look at the numbers. The impact of Title IX was huge because half the 50,000,000 kids in K-12 public schools are female.

But that’s not the case in special education. Nationally, about 13 percent of schoolchildren are classified as eligible for special services (it’s a bit higher in New Jersey) and many of those kids have minor learning disabilities. The Center for Public Education reports that 40 percent of kids who receive services are labeled “specific learning disability,” almost always a mild impairment. Another 20 percent are labeled “speech-impaired,” usually a stuttering or language articulation problem. In other words, 60 percent of kids in the special education system spend their days in traditional classrooms and, no doubt, participate in mainstream athletics programs.

Additionally, the guidelines are quite clear that competitive sports teams will remain competitive; students, disabled or not, have to make the team on their own steam.

The major part of the guidelines gives examples of ways that schools can adapt standard procedures for kids with disabilities. A deaf track runner, for example, can’t hear the starting gun so districts must provide a visual signal when a race begins. A one-handed swimmer can’t touch the edge of the pool with both hands at the conclusion of a race and so must be offered an alternative, such as touching the edge of the pool with one hand and holding his other arm forward. A student with diabetes who requires a nurse during the school day to check glucose levels and administer insulin must have a nurse available during after-school activities as well.

Easy, right? The part that has schools alarmed, however, is that very small portion of the special education population who will require more creative solutions for inclusion. Here are the U.S. DOE’s instructions:”When the number of students with disabilities at an individual school is insufficient to field a team, school districts can also: (1) develop district-wide or regional teams for students with disabilities as opposed to a school-based team in order to provide competitive experiences; (2) mix male and female students with disabilities on teams together; or (3) offer “allied” or “unified” sports teams on which students with disabilities participate with students without disabilities”

In a state like, say, Maryland, which has only 24 school districts, it’s not that hard to assemble a cohort of kids with similar disabilities to provide those mandated competitive experiences. Not so in New Jersey, where our infrastructure of about 600 separate school districts — more districts per square mile than any other state in America — poses unusual challenges. Some of our smaller schools, smaller than a few hundred students, would be hard-pressed to field any teams, let alone those composed of entirely of students with disabilities. Many N.J. districts, in this era of 2 percent annual cap increases, are struggling to fund current programs. Adding more programs creates additional fiscal challenges.

I’d be remiss to not point out that here’s another reason to consolidate school districts. In the meantime, N.J. – and every other state in the country – is now on notice that students with disabilities, from speech impediments to profound cognitive delays, have the right to express their athleticism. I may be biased (full disclosure: I have a child with multiple disabilities) but, really, would you have it any other way?


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.


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