But perhaps in the future, those hurt feelings will become more rare, because students with disabilities must be given a fair shot to play on a traditional sports team or have their own leagues, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The Department’s Office for Civil Rights issued guidance last week clarifying school districts’ existing legal obligations to provide equal access to extracurricular athletic activities to students with disabilities.
According to the Department’s website, students with disabilities have the right, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, to an equal opportunity to participate in their schools’ extracurricular activities.
The guidance suggests that disabled students who want to play for their school could join traditional teams if officials can make “reasonable modifications” to accommodate them. If those adjustments would fundamentally alter a sport or give the student an advantage, the department is directing the school to create parallel athletic programs that have comparable standing to traditional programs.
Cheryl Huffman, chairman of the Rome City Board of Education said the school system would likely make allowances for any special needs students who wish to play a sport, but as for creating a parallel team sport for disabled students alone, that would depend on how many students there are in the first place.
“The number (of students with disabilities) would dictate what we could do,” Huffman said. “But I would also think if there are any students, even if it’s just one, that wanted to participate in one of our sports, depending on the level of their ability, we would try to get them into a sport that they could participate in without causing themselves any harm or injury and that they could benefit from.”
She said programs such as the Special Olympics, hosted by the Rome-Floyd County Parks and Recreation Department, is something special needs students get excited about each year.
“From what I’ve read and heard and talked to parents, their children look forward to the Special Olympics because that’s their chance to shine and they’re included in a program that’s especially for them,” Huffman said.
Floyd County Schools spokesman Tim Hensley said the system has had students with various disabilities participating on athletic teams for many years.
Hensley said he expects the Georgia Department of Education and the Georgia High School Athletic Association to offer their interpretation of the directive in the coming weeks and “we will get a clearer picture of any changes that may need to be addressed in participation policy at the local school level.”
The groundbreaking order is reminiscent of the Title IX expansion of athletic opportunities for girls and women four decades ago and could bring sweeping changes to school budgets and locker rooms for years to come.
Activists cheered the changes.
“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 for a decade led a coalition pushing for the changes. “This is a huge victory.”
It’s not clear whether the new guidelines will spark a sudden uptick in sports participation. There was a big increase in female participation in sports after Title IX guidance instructed schools to treat female athletics on par with male teams. That led many schools to cut some men’s teams, arguing that it was necessary to be able to pay for women’s teams.
Staff Writer Lauren Jones contributed to this report.