There could be sweeping changes in school athletics. The U.S. Education Department is telling schools they must include students with disabilities in sports programs or provide equal alternative options.
That message was being delivered to the nation's schools on Friday. The order is reminiscent of the Title IX expansion four decades ago of athletic opportunities for girls and women and could bring sweeping changes to school budgets and locker rooms for years to come.
Students with disabilities who want to play for their school could join traditional teams if officials could make "reasonable modifications" to accommodate them.
But if those adjustments would fundamentally alter a sport or give the student an advantage, the department is directing the school to create parallel athletic programs that have comparable standing to mainstream programs.
High school football usually features the best athletes each school has to offer, but do some athletes with disabilities get left out unfairly? That's what the newly released guidelines from the Department of Education are trying to address.
The new policy says schools must allow a disabled student to be part of a regular sports team if reasonable modifications can be made to accommodate them. One example would be a deaf student who is a good runner and wants to be part of the track team, but can't hear the starter's pistol that starts the race. Instead, you could use a visual cue like strobe light that would go off and signal the beginning of the race.
But if there is no way to accommodate a student without fundamentally changing the sport or giving them an unfair advantage, the school would need to create a parallel athletic program. Like the Sparkles Cheerleader Program at Omaha’s Westside High School, where disabled students are able to cheer right alongside the varsity cheerleading squad.
Most Nebraska schools already have similar policies and programs. “If there's a deaf student and they want to wrestle, let them wrestle,” says Omaha Public Schools spokesman David Patton. "If they want to be on the baseball team and they can be on the baseball team, let them be on the baseball team. And make the appropriate accommodations as we would within our work environment or within our school environment.”
Patton says OPS administrators will know more about the effects of the new guidelines once they have a chance to go over them thoroughly. The Nebraska Department of Education already has similar rules to the new federal guidelines.