Kids with disabilities—including chronic illnesses—have had the right to take part in extracurricular activities since at least the 1970’s when Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was passed. But a June 2010 study by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) showed that students with disabilities have not been given equal access to extracurricular sports programs. The GAO concluded that schools needed more guidance and clarification of their obligations in helping students with disabilities participate in sports.
As a response to this study, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued a “Dear Colleagues Letter” in January. The letter provides some guidance to schools on the types of accommodations they can–and must–provide to students with disabilities in their athletic programs.
The OCR uses the case of a student with diabetes to illustrate how a program would accommodate for students with chronic illnesses. In the illustration, a diabetic student needs help with glucose testing and insulin administration in order to participate in a sport. OCR says that the school must provide a staff person to help with this type of medical care, and cannot exclude this student from the athletic program, since her condition can be reasonably accommodated. Presumably, schools would need to accommodate for students with other types of chronic illnesses in a similar manner.
However, OCR only requires that “reasonable modifications…aids and services” be provided to help students with disabilities participate in sports programs. They are not required to provide modifications when a “school district can show that doing so would be a fundamental alteration to its program.”
The average school sports programs are still not going to be designed with the type of flexibility that would provide the perfect place for all students with chronic illnesses to participate. This might be difficult to do without taking away some of the competitive nature of sports. However, the new clarification of the law does help students who have competitive athletic skills, but require some accommodations that don’t affect the game much, if at all.
One important part of the letter written to school districts by OCR, is that it addresses the misperceptions that are too often at the root of discrimination in schools and in our society generally. OCR states that “a school district may not operate its program or activity on the basis of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes about disability generally, or specific disabilities in particular. A school district also may not rely on generalizations about what students with a type of disability are capable of—one student with a certain type of disability may not be able to play a certain type of sport, but another student with the same disability may be able to play that sport.”