DOE Re: Extracurricular Athletics for Disabled Students

As you may or may not be aware, the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights issued a “Dear Colleague” letter on Friday relative to schools obligations to provide participation opportunities for disabled students in extra-curricular activities pursuant to Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. You can access the letter from this communication.

This document answered some questions, but at this point there are many additional questions to be answered in order for everyone to know exactly what this means to you, your school district, your coaches and to your athletic program. We can be certain much of the impact of implementing the contents of this letter will fall on the local school district. You will hear much from the news media relative to this issue and I would advise at this time you take the media information as only that, information.

The NFHS executive staff and legal counsel provided the following observations of the letter to their membership and both Mike and I concur that the following conclusions can be quickly drawn from reading the letter:

  1. One cannot rely on generalizations to determine participation for disabled students.  Individual assessment is necessary in determining the appropriate level of participation for a disabled student.
  2. If reasonable accommodations can be made to allow participation by a disabled student, that should be done.  One does not have to change the nature of the game nor does one have to provide accommodations that give a disabled student an unfair advantage in competition.
  3. School districts must provide needed aids and services for disabled students.  This would mean if you provide services during the school day, then those must be provided for the student who participates on a team.  An example would be providing a disabled cross country runner an aide to be with them while running the course.
  4. These disability guidelines require inclusion where possible in existing programs or on existing teams.  It does not require the student with disabilities automatically be given a spot on a team for which other students must try out.  It does require coaches use the same criteria for all students when cutting. It does permit creation of a disabled team in sports such as tennis or basketball.  The guidelines also recognized that there may need to be combined athletes from multiple schools on disabled teams.  There also may be a need to mix male and female disabled students.  The guidelines recognize that unified sports may serve the needs of the disabled students.
  5. The goal of the guidelines is to expand opportunity and inclusion.  Schools and state associations must still apply bona-fide safety standards. (One would not be required to allow a student with physical limitations to play third base in a baseball or softball game.)

Certainly, we all believe in the value of participation in our programs for students and we believe in opportunities for all students. Please be advised that the NIAAA will be working closely with the NFHS, the Department of Education and other agencies to provide you with accurate information and all the resources necessary for implementation and compliance as it specifically relates to athletic and activity participation of students with disabilities and to answer all questions.

To access the “Dear Colleague” letter from the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights please visit:

“Dear Colleague” (PDF)

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