In what is being hailed as a “landmark moment” that will do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for female athletes, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a directive Friday detailing how schools are bound by federal law to ensure that students with disabilities are given equal opportunities to compete in school athletics.

Advocates say that the new guidelines give teeth to a previously vague policy and offer more specifics as to how schools should do more to provide for and include students with disabilities in school sports programs.

The newly stated guidelines, which cover interscholastic, club and intramural sports at all education levels, stress that schools must make “reasonable modifications” for students with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to play on mainstream teams whenever possible as long as those modifications do not fundamentally alter the way the sport is played.

The guidelines also stipulate that schools are obligated to pursue other sports opportunities, such as wheelchair-based teams, when modifications cannot be made to play on the mainstream teams.

“It’s a landmark moment for students with disabilities,” said Terri Lakowski, policy chair of the Inclusive Fitness Coalition, a group of 200 organizations that advocates for disability rights.

“This is a game changer. I firmly believe this will do for students with disabilities what Title IX has done for women and girls. This gives very clear guidance of what equal opportunity for students with disabilities looks like.”

According to a 2010 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, students with disabilities were being denied equal access to the health and social benefits of playing school sports, in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Title IX was passed in 1972 but gained strength by being made more specific in subsequent years, Lakowski said, adding that that’s what the latest action does for students with disabilities.

“We think these specifications and clarifications will help schools and parents understand their rights and obligations,” said Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, in a conference call Thursday.

The guidelines offered several examples of “reasonable modifications” that schools could make for students with disabilities, such as a visual cue to accompany a starter pistol for a hearing-impaired sprinter. Or waiving the rule that requires every swimmer to touch the wall with both hands if a one-armed student otherwise meets the requirements to compete on the team.

School systems also should provide, the guidelines state, alternative athletic opportunities for students for whom they cannot make reasonable accommodations, such as wheelchair tennis or wheelchair basketball teams or “allied” or “unified” sports teams that include students with disabilities and without.

The National Federation of State High School Associations issued a news release Friday afternoon pledging its “full support of the policy of inclusion,” adding that it would work with its member schools to “enhance participation opportunities for all students, including those with disabilities.”

The Maryland General Assembly in 2008 passed the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act, which requires that county boards of education grant students with disabilities equal opportunities to participate in physical education programs and on mainstream athletic teams. Tatyana McFadden, a wheelchair athlete then attending Atholton High who was born with spina bifida, lobbied for the bill in Annapolis.

In the Thursday teleconference, Galanter singled out Maryland as a state “doing amazing work creating athletic opportunities for kids with disabilities.”

Montgomery County last year had 1,957 students with disabilities play school sports, including 286 on “corollary” athletic teams that play team handball in the fall, bocce in the winter and softball in the spring.

The corollary teams also include students without disabilities.

In an e-mail, Montgomery County Director of Systemwide Athletics Duke Beattie said that the corollary teams have “trained referees, uniforms, equipment, awards nights, yearbook coverage, pep assemblies, trained coaches paid at the same rate of the mainstream teams, varsity letters” and play for division and county championships.

“Students [with and without disabilities] who never dreamed of competing in a varsity event are competing and enjoying all of the benefits associated with participation in a varsity sport,” Beattie wrote in the e-mail. “ And most importantly, they are learning valuable lessons associated with competition, teamwork, goals, etc.”

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