• avatar

    Share This:

    • Share on Facebook
    • Share on Google Plus
    • Share on Linkedin
    • RSS
    « Back to Blogs
    May 2013

    OCR Guidance on Accommodating Students With Disabilities in Athletics

    image: teenage student in wheelchair holding basketball

    The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education recently issued a  "Dear Colleague" letter (DCL) interpreting federal law requirements for public school athletic participation by students with disabilities. Advocacy groups quickly hailed the DCL as an important tool for students and their parents. Consequently, schools need to review their procedures to ensure DCL compliance and determine whether program changes are necessary so students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate.

    Key Points of the DCL

    The DCL outlines three major points:

    • Schools cannot base decisions about a student's ability to participate in a sport on generalizations, assumptions, or stereotypes about disabilities. Schools must evaluate students individually and apply the same criteria to everyone.
    • Schools must give students with disabilities equal opportunities to participate in extracurricular athletics by making reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures and by providing necessary aids and services, unless doing so would cause a "fundamental alteration" to the athletic activity. A fundamental alteration would change an essential aspect of the sport or give a disabled competitor an unfair advantage. For example, providing a visual cue in addition to the starter's pistol to a hearing-impaired sprinter would not alter the nature of the race and would not give that student an unfair advantage over others.
    • OCR strongly recommends that schools create athletic opportunities for disabled students who cannot participate in existing athletics programs even with reasonable modifications or necessary aids and services. These additional opportunities should receive support equal to other school sports. For example, OCR suggests disability-specific teams such as wheelchair basketball. If a school lacks sufficient students with disabilities to field a team, it might consider developing or participating in a districtwide team.

    Further Questions Raised by the DCL

    • Does this DCL mean that every disabled student "makes the team"? No. OCR clarifies that schools can continue to require a particular skill or ability level for any student to participate in a "selective or competitive" sport, if the criteria used are not discriminatory. Schools can also adopt necessary safety standards, but they must consider whether making reasonable modifications or providing aids and services to a disabled student would enable the student to participate safely.
    • Can schools automatically create separate teams for all students with disabilities? No. OCR notes that under federal law, providing unnecessarily separate or different services to students with disabilities is discriminatory. An individualized assessment of each student's needs and abilities is required.
    • How will the DCL affect higher education? This is unclear. Although acknowledging that examples used in the DCL all relate to primary and secondary schools, OCR states that the same principles apply to postsecondary athletics.


    Code of Federal Regulations
    Franczek Radelet: New OCR Guidance Lays Out School District Responsibilities to Serve Students with Disabilities in Athletics
    Inside Higher Ed: OCR Order on Athletics and Students With Disabilities Could Affect Colleges


    Add Comment

    Text Only 2000 character limit

    Page 1 of 1