Special Olympics is poised to support the recent guidance released by the United States Department of Education (DOE) on January 23 to schools and school systems throughout the nation that receive federal aid about the requirements of providing quality sports opportunities for students with disabilities.
Special Olympics applauds President Barack Obama for creating the significant call to action which will not only create equality in schools for students with disabilities, but will all lead to more welcoming and tolerant schools across America. The specific call out to “allied or “unified” sports, is especially encouraging, as this has been a part of the Special Olympics offering for many years.
Special Olympics Unified Sports®, an inclusive sports program that combines approximately equal number of individuals with intellectual disabilities and partners without intellectual disabilities on teams for training and competition, is a significantly growing program that has direct results in building more inclusive school climates. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has supported Unified Sports® over the past year, including the development of a specific online coaches’ education course located at http://www.nfhslearn.com/.
Special Olympics can also offer the Special Olympics Project UNIFY® Program which is an obvious solution to this directive. Project UNIFY uses inclusive sports activities, youth leadership and activation to provide all students opportunities for participation and acceptance. This program, a direct result of DOE funding, has shown proven results in providing students opportunities to play sports together, enhance school climate and give students increased physical, social and educational skills.
North Carolina has been a leader among Special Olympics Project UNIFY Programs in the nation, with close to 200 public and private schools involved during the 2012-13 school year. Additionally, SONC has partnered with the NC High School Athletic Association to inform high schools about the benefits that Project UNIFY initiatives can bring to students with and with intellectual disabilities.
While the DOE guidance does not make new law, it does identify the responsibilities that schools and school systems have under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The key messages in the new guidance could be summarized as the following:
- Every school child with a disability must be evaluated as an individual relative to their sports and physical activity participation. No generalizations about the ability of a child or children who have disabilities in the same category are permissible.
- Reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities to participate in sports activities are required; the basic nature of a sport does not need to be compromised under this guidance, but where reasonable accommodations do not alter the nature of the sport, they should be made.
- School districts and schools must provide aids and services to enable students with disabilities to participate if the lack of such aids and services would not permit participation.
- Exclusion of students from sports activities is not permissible. Therefore, if children with disabilities cannot be accommodated within existing programs, alternatives need to be developed.
- Acknowledging that there are safety issues involved in youth sports, schools need to determine if adjustments in existing programs can be reasonably accomplished without creating real safety issues for other students that cannot be mitigated. This would be a rationale for creating separate sporting opportunities for youth with disabilities in such instances.
The guidance emphasizes access and participation and will rely heavily, especially in the coming months, on an intensive and comprehensive outreach and communications process. Still, the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights does have the authority to seek redress where there is evidence that the provisions of underlying law are not being implemented.
“Special Olympics has been a leader in bringing sport to people with intellectual disabilities and over the past four years has worked closely with the United States Department of Education, school districts and schools around the country through Project UNIFY to make such important opportunities available to students. With this new guidance, we stand ready to do even more”, said Shriver. “Our experience has demonstrated that the vast majority of schools just do not have the types of sport programs which children with various levels of disability need. We hope that educators will take this opportunity to commit to sports programming that will meet the social, psychological and physical need of children with disabilities.”