The federal government has reminded school districts across the country that disabled students should have a level playing field when they participate in school sports. That edict is an important step toward realizing the democratic ideal of equal opportunity for all.
School sports build character as well as physical fitness. Students learn cooperation, leadership and fair play, gain lifelong friendships and develop physical skills and healthy habits.
Students with disabilities have had a right to participate in extracurricular activities since passage in 1973 of the federal Rehabilitation Act. But that guarantee often proved more theoretical than real when it came to sports.
Many school districts ignored the law. They thought that making accommodations for student athletes with disabilities was too expensive, would give opponents an unfair advantage or would diminish their programs.
But U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in announcing the new guidelines, that's just wrong. "While it's the coach's job to pick the best team, students with disabilities must be judged based on their individual abilities and not excluded because of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices or stereotypes." he said.
Naysayers complain that schools will have to spend untold dollars to meet the guidelines, but athletes with disabilities don't want an unfair advantage, just an opportunity to play.
Examples of "reasonable modifications" include using a laser instead of a starter's pistol so that a deaf student can race in track events and waiving the two-hand-touch finish in swimming to allow a one-armed swimmer to compete. In all cases, a disabled athlete must make a team based on ability.
There are many inspirational stories of students who overcame physical disabilities to win accolades in sports. Providing equal opportunities for disabled athletes will result in more such stories. More important, it will give every student a chance to enjoy the many benefits of participation.