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Did the Ed. Dept. Really Create a Right to Wheelchair Basketball?

By Michele McNeil — January 25, 2013 2 min read
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Give Fordham’s Michael Petrilli credit for writing a headline that makes you want to click: “The Obama Administration invents a right to wheelchair basketball.”

But did the U.S. Department of Education really create a “right” to wheelchair basketball with its most recent guidance about how to make sure students with disabilities have equal access to school sports?

The guidance says schools must make reasonable accommodations to allow students with disabilities to participate in school sports, such as offering a hearing-impaired student visual cues at the start of a race during a track meet. But then the guidance goes farther and says that if reasonable accommodations can’t be made, students with disabilities “should still have an equal opportunity to receive the benefits of extracurricular activities” and the “school district should create additional opportunities for those students with disabilities.” The document says that could include developing district-wide or regional sports teams, or mixing male and female students—and makes clear that schools can work with community groups to make this happen. What’s more, the guidance says these separate athletic opportunities should be “supported equally” as the district’s other sports teams.

(The Associated Press, and advocates in my colleague Christina Samuels’ take on this, liken this to the opportunities expanded to women as part of Title IX.)

Petrilli, who argues the Education Department majorly overstepped its bounds here, says this document “invents” a “right.” My take is that’s overstating things a bit. The guidance certainly doesn’t mandate specific sports for specific disabilities. But his point is well taken. The Education Department document does strongly indicate that students with disabilities have the right to access separate, competitive sports leagues that can accommodate their disability, whether at school or in the community. And the burden is on schools to make that happen.

UPDATE: Education Department spokesman Daren Briscoe clarifies the intent of this guidance. He told me, “The guidance does not say that there is a right to separate sports programs such as wheelchair basketball. Rather, the guidance ‘urges'—but does not require—that when inclusion is not possible, school districts find other ways to give students with disabilities the opportunity to take part in extracurricular athletics.”

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