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Inclusion of Students with Disabilities in Extracurricular Activities: “We’re all on the same team.”

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) just released much-anticipated guidance (available here) on the inclusion of students with disabilities in extracurricular activities – which includes club, intramural, and interscholastic athletic programs.

The guidance provides information to schools on their obligations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in federally funded programs. Section 504 requires schools (traditional and charter) to provide a qualified student with a disability an opportunity to benefit from the school district’s program equal to that of students without disabilities. Under Section 504, a disability is any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one of more major life activities (students who receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) qualify as students with disabilities under Section 504).

As Terri Lakowski of the Inclusive Fitness Coalition told US News & World Report:

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.

After Title IX became law, women’s participation in school athletic programs skyrocketed: from 295,000 girls competing in high school sports in 1972 to 3.2 million girls competing in the 2010-2011 school year. According to the 2006 Civil Rights Data Collection National Estimates, 12.82% of students in the U.S. qualified as disabled under Section 504 or the IDEA. The release of this guidance, therefore, helps ensure that schools provide equal athletic opportunities to over six million students!

The health and social benefits of activity for all students cannot be denied, and can be seen directly in the stories of people like Kareem Dale, a special advisor to the President who is also partially blind (from the Huffington Post):

Dale's school made it possible for him to participate in [wrestling] by creating a rule that wrestlers always needed to be touching their opponent. "It allowed me to wrestle throughout public high school," Dale said. "That experience of wrestling gave me confidence, it made me healthier, it was really an extraordinary experience."

This is a great step forward, not just for disabled students, but for all students who want to participate fully in the life of their school, because, as Seth Galanter, Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights stated, “We are all on the same team.”

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