Now that voters have made their leadership selections for school districts around the state, let’s turn our attention to something those leaders will need to face in the months and years ahead.
On Jan. 25, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued a directive to school districts around the nation, declaring that it’s time to give qualified students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in sports. The impetus was a report from the Government Accountability Office that concluded that students with disabilities were being denied equal access to the health and social benefits of playing school sports — in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
“It’s a landmark moment for students with disabilities,” Terri Lakowski, policy chair of the Inclusive Fitness Coalition, a group of 200 organizations that advocates for disability rights, said in a Washington Post article. “This is a game changer. I firmly believe this will do for students with disabilities what Title IX has done for women and girls. This gives very clear guidance of what equal opportunity for students with disabilities looks like.”
Of course, Title IX, which became law in 1972, was revolutionary in its impact upon women. Last year, on the law’s 40th anniversary, Sports Illustrated reported that when it was passed, 300,000 girls were competing in high school sports, then 38 years later that number had risen to more than 3 million. More importantly, during that same period, the percentage of law school graduates who were women went from 7 percent in 1972 to 47 percent in 2010, while medical degrees jumped from 9 percent women in ‘72 to 48 percent women in 2010.
It is long overdue to see young people with disabilities having an equal opportunity to participate in athletics. Not only is sports good for a person’s self-esteem and confidence, it’s good for their overall contribution to society.
The newly stated guidelines, which cover interscholastic, club and intramural sports at all education levels, stress that schools must make “reasonable modifications” whenever possible for students with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to play on mainstream teams, as long as those modifications do not fundamentally change the way the sport is played. The guidelines also say schools are obligated to pursue other sports opportunities, such as wheelchair-based teams, when modifications cannot be made to play on the mainstream teams.
Of course there will be significant challenges to its application, but every school board member — whether longstanding in his or her position or just now elected to the post — should immediately embrace the challenge. It won’t happen overnight, but we urge them to start working on it today. Then, someday, they’ll be able to say, with considerable pride, that they were part of the next great step toward equal opportunity for all.