Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Groundbreaking Moment for Students with Disabilities

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This was written in collaboration with many Project UNIFY staff members.

 Editor’s Note: This post is from our partners at the Special Olympics Project UNIFY. Each week in January, we will feature a new article on a topic related to the social inclusion of youth with intellectual disabilities. Through this effort, we hope to inform the public of the importance of such inclusion as well as offer educators and parents resources to implement it.

On Friday, January 25, 2013, the United States Department of Education (DOE) released new guidance to schools and school systems throughout the nation that receive federal aid about the requirements of providing quality sports opportunities for students with disabilities.  While the 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.

The Special Olympics community applauds President Barack Obama for creating the significant call to action which will not only create equality in schools for students with disabilities, but also will 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 numbers of students with and without intellectual disabilities on teams for training and competition, is having a significant impact on building more inclusive school climates.

Special Olympics Project UNIFY® 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. Project UNIFY, a direct result of Department of Education funding, has shown proven results in providing students with opportunities to play sports together; enhancing the school climate; and giving students increased physical, social and educational skills.

According to Special Olympics International Chairman and CEO Timothy Shriver, “Special Olympics has been a leader in bringing sport to people with intellectual disabilities and over the past 4 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.”

Note: The full guidance can be found at www.ed.gov/ocr, news. Additional information on the Special Olympics Unified Sports® program and Project UNIFY can be found here.