Keeping Score

For Disabled Athletes, a Right to Compete in School?

The Department of Education issues a 'Dear Colleague' letter, specifying what schools must do for disabled athletes. What does this mean for these athletes?

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image: Wheelchair Basketball match during the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, China.
Feng Li / Getty Images

Gisele Zavala, an eighth-grader from Snellville, Ga., says that wheelchair sports changed her life. Zavala has spina bifida, a neural tube defect; the mean kids at school called her a cripple. Before she started playing wheelchair basketball, football and team handball five years ago, for teams representing the Gwinnett County School District, Zavala spent her days feeing sorry for herself. “It was hard to talk to anybody without feeling judged,” she says. But after mixing it up on the court and bonding with teammates with similar challenges, that trying time is behind her. “I started to open up and put a smile on my face,” Zavala says. “I’m not that shy little girl anymore. I’m more outgoing, more ambitious.”

On Jan. 25, the Obama Administration sent a clear message: it wants more Gisele Davalas in the game. The Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter outlining the athletic opportunities that schools must provide disabled students. Schools, the letter says, must “afford qualified students with disabilities an equal opportunity for participation.” A 2010 report from the General Accountability Office, which showed that disabled students participated in athletics at significantly lower rates than able-bodied students, sparked this federal guidance to schools. Disability advocates are cheering. “This will do for students with disabilities,” says Terri Lakowski, chief executive of Active Policy Solutions, a Washington-based advocacy group, “what Title IX did for women and girls.”

This federal directive is far less sweeping than Title IX, a landmark law that essentially required schools to start girls sports teams from scratch and create equal athletic opportunities for both girls and boys. The government is not mandating that schools start wheelchair basketball teams or saying that if a student with a physical impairment tries out for a baseball team, that student must make the team — even if other able-bodied athletes are more qualified. “School districts may continue to select the best players as they define it,” says Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, “as long as they aren’t excluding kids because of their disability.”

The government is requiring, however, that schools provide “reasonable modifications” to ensure equal athletic access for disabled students. In other words, schools need to use common sense. The letter offers some specific examples: if a high school track athlete is deaf, for instance, he shouldn’t be prohibited from running just because he can’t hear the starting gun. A district can provide him with a visual cue — a starter can, say, raise his hand for the deaf student. Such a modification doesn’t give the student any competitive advantage, it just levels the playing field.

Say a student born with one hand wants to join a swim team, but a rule requires that swimmers touch the wall with both hands at the finish. What should schools do? Figure it out, says the office of civil rights. Since “a one-hand touch does not alter an essential aspect of the activity,” the government writes, you can’t leave that swimmer at the side of the pool. One suggestion: call it a finish if she touches the wall with one hand, while her other arm is simultaneously stretched forward.

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In some sports, disabled students can’t be incorporated into existing programs. If wheelchair athletes competed against able-bodied athletes in basketball, for example, the fundamental nature of the game would be altered. Plus, such a game might not be safe, for any of the athletes. In cases like these, the Department of Education says that “a school district should offer students with disabilities opportunities for athletic activities that are separate or different from those offered to students without disabilities.”

Most schools probably won’t have enough disabled students to field an individual team. So the government recommends district-wide teams, like the one in Gwinnett County, where Gisele Zavala competes. Georgia is a model. The state’s high school athletic association has partnered with a nonprofit, the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs, that has helped 24 school districts start wheelchair basketball, football, handball and track teams that compete against each other throughout the state. In an era of tight school budgets, additional sports teams may not be a priority. But district programs reduce the economic burden on any individual school.

Dear Colleague letters, like this one issued by the Department of Education, aren’t new laws. But they do have teeth. In 2011, for example, the Office for Civil Rights clarified how schools and colleges needed to respond to allegations of sexual assault on campus. Most schools are now investigating claims with more vigilance.

Similarly, the letter on sports and disability also puts schools on notice. “This is really important guidance,” says Barry Taylor, a civil rights attorney at Equip for Equality, a disability advocacy organization based in Chicago. “It brings the issue to a place it wasn’t at before. It goes to the knee-jerk reaction that people have to people with disabilities. That automatic exclusion — it can’t happen anymore.”

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