We Must Provide Equal Opportunity in Sports to Students with Disabilities

Playing sports at any level—club, intramural, or interscholastic—can be a key part of the school experience and have an immense and lasting impact on a student’s life. Among its many benefits, participation in extracurricular athletic activities promotes socialization, the development of leadership skills, focus, and, of course, physical fitness. It’s no secret that sports helped to shape my life. From a very early age, playing basketball taught me valuable lessons about grit, discipline, and teamwork that are still with me to this day.

Duncan signs a basketball

Secretary Duncan signs a basketball before a stop during the 2012 back-to-school bus tour. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Students with disabilities are no different – like their peers without disabilities, these students benefit from participating in sports. But unfortunately, we know that students with disabilities are all too often denied the chance to participate and with it, the respect that comes with inclusion. This is simply 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.  Knowledgeable adults create the possibilities of participation among children and youth both with and without disabilities.

Today, ED’s Office for Civil Rights has released guidance that clarifies existing legal obligations of schools to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics and clubs. We make clear that schools may not exclude students who have an intellectual, developmental, physical, or any other disability from trying out and playing on a team, if they are otherwise qualified. This guidance builds on a resource document the Department issued in 2011 that provides important information on improving opportunities for children and youth with disabilities to access PE and athletics.

Federal civil rights laws require schools to provide equal opportunities, not give anyone an unfair head start. So schools don’t have to change the essential rules of the game, and they don’t have to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage. But they do need to make reasonable modifications (such as using a laser instead of a starter pistol to start a race so a deaf runner can compete) to ensure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else. The guidance issued today will help schools meet this obligation and will allow increasing numbers of kids with disabilities the chance to benefit from playing sports.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Read the “Dear Colleague” letter from the Office for Civil Rights


  1. People with disabilities also need to be well represented. While civil rights groups have tried their part in getting equal rights for them in schools, government also needs to step up by passing into law bills that will ensure their rights. Equal rights can’t be overemphasized. They are people too.

  2. Now a Days the people of this world are going very Fast. They are very busy of their working field. So they Can’t afford to free for watching Sports. Sports are creating emotions for their fans. Many sports lover can’t watch their supporting teams because their busy schedule. Today we have no time for watch sports live.

  3. The rights of all disabled people, including those of children, have been reiterated and given a new impetus with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is a great decision. They have the same rights.

  4. Well the government introduced a regulation designed to assist the disabled in practicing sports together with a fully healthy subjects.

  5. As a professional in the field of adapted physical education, I am happy to see that some attention is being paid to the value of sport participation for all students but this new initiative is not really going to change anything. If one were to re-look at the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 it states that individuals with disabilities should be afforded “comparable opportunities” as their non-disabled peers as it relates to sports and physical education. This has rarely happened and this is where our energy should be spent. I agree with others on this page, if a student is able to make a team with minor modifications, a coach is going to take him or her, but we need to have comparable sports programs for students who want to play and compete and are unable to make the team. For too long our kids have not been able to enjoy the benefits of sport participation. I hope we can keep the momentum going.

  6. I hope schools choose to make the right choice and treat people as equal participants. Too much segregation has already occurred in Special Education. Disabled students are often forced into special classrooms or schools and have very limited if any access to participate in non-academic extracurricular activities. Most of these classrooms or schools don’t even provide the option or if they do they are very limited. I hope this opens the door for many students. As the parent of a disabled teenager who wants to play sports but constantly is told by administration there is no way, I am glad to finally have a venue to push the compliance a little farther.
    I agree separation is not equality – separation is discriminatory and wrong. I hope good things come from this.

  7. In the early-seventies I was denied permission to take gym classes and play sports in high school because I had a disablity. I later joined a community organization and became a gold medalist in the 1980 paralympics. I’m so delighted to hear that the shameful wall of the exclusion of youth with disabilities along side their peers in sports is finally coming down. A great big shout out to all the outstanding disabled athletes before and during my time and to all of those afterwards who continued to champion the cause!!

  8. My son with down syndrome participated in football and swimming all thru high school. (Middle school sports was a bit more of a fight) he is stayng in high school untill he is 21. The problem is he was told be can only be on tb e team four years. This year they let him Practice with be teams but not compete. Next year they may not let him participat at all.
    Being a part of these teams did wonders for him. Even teacbers have noticed how the football team has accepted him. They high five him or fist bump him in the halls, he goes to every pasta party and he gets more texts than anyone. Everyone knows Chris. It has really made him feel important.
    Is there anyway to get them. To let him practice with the teams next year ? It has really done more for him then any therapy ever did.

  9. My son has autism he is a wonderful child to all the jerks on here we have been following this story he has just bawled his eyes out once again to how people judge others….. He still has feelings and is a great sports player….. people suck…..off to comfort my child then delete/block this website from my browser forever…. I hope you are not teachers……just sad….

  10. This is a good move, but, unfortunately, it won’t change much. The discrimination starts much earlier. At least in our town, if you don’t play the “travel leagues” at a young age then you don’t even have a chance to play in high school. My son has Asperger’s, and his behaviors have kept him from playing more than his abilities. He loves basketball, and works hard at it. But, without the opportunity to play on these other teams (he’s not asked to join because of his odd behaviors) he won’t have the base skill necessary to try out. Often times the high school coaches are either coaches of teams at the younger levels or are good friends with those that are. I would like to see a move away from competitive sports at the junior high/high school level and more intermural leagues. Most kids won’t continue playing sports at the collegiate level, but all students would benefit from the opportunity to participate in recreational sports for a lifetime.

    • Great comment about the downside of “travel leagues.” Another problem with travel leagues is that they are often expensive. Having a de facto rule that playing on a travel league is a requirement for playing high school sports means a lot of low income kids can’t participate in not only the travel league but high school sports as well.

  11. Hello all,

    This is nice, but I dont think this is a major change. It doesnt really force schools do DO anything – “schools dont have to change the essential rules of the game.” Nor should they. Using a laser over a starting gun? Who would complain about that? The poster above who thought this would “destroy school sports” (David) obviously didnt really read the original post. Also, I’ll bet that most schools were already willing to make small changes to accomodate students with physical or intellectual disabilities.

    My son has Down Syndrome and I like to believe he could at least try out for the teams. You never know. He is only 4 at the moment, but he is a good wrestler 🙂 I like to think that in 13 years, he will be strong enough to beat the heck out of David’s kid. (j/k David).


  12. This new directive is an absolute horror!! If it follows Title IX then it’ll destroy school sports as we know it. How are schools supposed to fund this?? Will they be forced to spend as much money on disabled sports programs just for “inclusion”??

    Why can’t people simply face the fact that if you’re disabled, you might not get to play sports in the same manner as everyone else?? From your own league, it’s not the school’s responsibility!

    Also, disabled people aren’t excluded at all now…if you’re good enough, you can participate in any sport. I’ve yet to hear any coach turn down a top athlete because of a disability. If they can play well, they’re on the team…if not, too bad!

    • Seriously! As a previous Special Education teacher and current Disability professional in higher ed, I can assure you that the Special Education program receives more federal and state money than any program in secondary education. The problem has been that the money was filtered out to athletics and everywhere else. For instance, Special Education pays rent for its teachers to use classrooms. Why? No other departments pay. I’m happy that now they will get to benefit from some of their misused money.

    • Thank god you never had a child with a disability. I can tell that you would be a truly understanding parent. To often children with disabilities are never given a change to try out for the team but they do not fit the “model” image of a “jock”. I have worked with a large variety of disabled children, over the last 30 years, and I cannot tell you the number of talented students who were not allowed to play sports because they had disfiguring disabilities, or they were missing an appendage, or even the student who stuttered so profusely he could not be understood. This comment just shows how small some minds are. Every child should have the right to excel.

    • Minnesota State High School League sponsors four Adapted Sports in two divisions for students with Physical Impairments and Cognitive Impairments. The MSHSL has sponsored these activities for over 20 years and it has had a great effect on schools and communities than could ever have been imagined.

      • But separate is never equal…… and having separate programs for students with disabilities just acts to separate them more, and does not include them in the every day life of school. Twenty years ago this was a step forward, I realize, but now Minnesota needs to move on!

        • The directive does not require “equal”. It requires an appropriate level of access, which is not the same thing as full equality. I hope Minnesota will continue those programs for the kids who can’t qualify for competitive teams but who would still like to play some kind of sports or get some exercise. If there are only 20 spaces on the swim team, the coach is supposed to pick the 20 best swimmers, regardless of disability status, not the 17 best swimmers and the three kids with disabilities just because they’re disabled. Eliminating those programs means eliminating sports opportunities for some kids with disabilities, just like limiting the team size means eliminating sports opportunities for all the non-disabled kids who didn’t make the team.

        • The Dept of Education and OCR has yet to understand the concept that, “Separate is NOT Equal”. Sec. Duncan, ask African Americans if they will reconsider reversing the supreme court decision, “Brown versus the Board of Education” or the Jim Crow laws- as long as the Black Schools and Water Fountains are sanctioned and found “Equal” by the DOE and their so called Office of Civil Rights, all is AOK? Anything other than full integration is unacceptable. Why is it that Duncan and todays Boards of Education still think otherwise?? Separate is NEVER Equal and this is true for ALL Civil Rights, anything less is DISCRIMINATION. Do you expect the Disabled to continue to accept school district table scraps because they are just the feeble minded- not really full Persons, not really American Citizens, not one of the, “All Men are Created Equal”! Sec. Duncan please read Martin Luther King’s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” which addressed those whom called his civil rights “activities”” Unwise and Untimely” ;that he, MLK should be patient and simply wait. MLK proved as did Gandhi and Stanton, that waiting does not bring about Justice, and Freedom is NEVER voluntarily given by the oppressor! BOE’s and School Districts have a notorious history of Discrimination-against blacks, women and the disabled and no parent or American citizen should accept, Separate But Equal-it never is-be it in our schools or at our lunch counters! Till the day we stop accepting the old tired lies and self-deception of Separate BUT Equal, we as a country will continue to pay the price of keeping some people marginalized.

    • Why can’t people simply face the fact that if you’re disabled, you might not get to play sports in the same manner as everyone else?? From your own league, it’s not the school’s responsibility! ……………………………………………………………..Being disabled isn’t a choice my son is and is probably better at footbal soccer and basketball than any other kid this as opened a door for me to try to get our local schools to except him and you sir are a jerk. What league are you classifying disabled kids in exactly?????

    • Wow David, you should be ashamed of yourself. I respect your opinion and understand that you probably do not have a child with a disability. But, with that said, I hope you don’t have kids for that manner. You definitely are not a role model. As a matter of fact, it makes me wonder if you had any role models during your childhood.
      I am in Inclusion Coordinator. I have a degree in Psychology and Social Work. I help promote EQUALITY in recreation programs. I figure out how to make things work, not IF IT CAN WORK. I hear on a daily basis that parents just want their child to have opportunities and not be told you have to “stand in that line because you have a disability.” The individuals with disabilities HAVE FEELINGS TOO. And, I know a lot of kids that can kick butt in high school sports if they would be given the opportunity. Unfortuntaly, a lot of high school coaches are all about the status of winning and getting scholarships for their athletes.
      David, let your gaurd down. I know that change is very difficult for your type of personality. But, sometimes, if you want to grow, you have to accept change. With the way things are finally happening for people of ALL abilities, it’s what the NORM will be. Yes, the ADA has helped a lot. But, we have to help with what’s inside our hearts now. Sorry David!

    • This is ridiculous , the only thing you care about is if team sports win? Why can’t the disabled kids have a chance but your kid can? As a parent, you should be supporting this accusation, but no your to caught up in what should be just for “normal” kids. Take some time to think about what you say and how this little comment can affect kids with disabilities. Be an Adult.
      -Cameron 14, Georgia

  13. This is terrific news for students with disabilities. I hope the federal government will diligently get after school districts that don’t comply.

    I also applaud your recognizing that sports are important for students. Unfortunately, the trend toward bigger schools means that a huge number of students (disabled and not disabled) get cut from participation. This is ridiculous in an era where obesity is a nationally recognized problem and so many kids need phsysical activity to concentrate. How do you plan to make sports available through schools to each and every student who desires to participate?

  14. hmm, football, basketball, baseball, tennis, swimming, gymnastics; playing with huge and fast players; I would love to see that in a varsity team?!? Good LUCK!

  15. How are the local and/or state school districts to find funds to meet this regulation. Most districts are already hard pressed financially.

    • This is a landmark moment for ALL students, as INCLUSION represents and affects everyone. The model to be “inclusive” is something that all of us should strive for in all aspects of our lives, not just sports. It is a movement, not just for a single person, a particular school, your own community or a specific sports group, but for all generations. We teach our kids not to be “clickish” and to steer clear of social negatives such as bullying, and “out casting.” This is no different. I can tell from some of these posts that we still have a lot of education needed in this area. I feel our youth and young adult population is more receptive to “Inclusion” than their parents. As to how to fund…School athletics could and SHOULD be supported by the Foundations that professional sport organizations/advertisers create, specifically for these reasons. These foundations serve to fund Health initiatives that help to “stamp out” Childhood Obesity and promote active lifestyles in our communities. For example, as a consumer, we dump 1 billion dollars a year into watching and supporting the NFL professional teams. $3.2 million is just in merchandise sales. The NFL gives back and shares responsibility for future generations through “NFL PLAY 60,” a national youth health and fitness campaign focused on increasing the wellness of young fans by encouraging them to be active for at least 60 minutes a day. Other professional sports organizations that don’t have foundations to support their local communities, should, as our youth, even those with disabilities, look up to and aspire to be these successful athletes. I also agree that larger schools need to find a way to increase participation. It is a shameful that we can only support one varsity team (that serves 20 students out of 1500), rather than a Varsity A and B team, not to be confused with Varsity, JV, and Frosh. Maybe offering intramural sports and intramural tournaments/competitions would be a way to get more students overall involved. These events could also serve as funding sources for the schools and other athletic programs. There are so many issues that can be addressed and eliminated in our society with increased fitness and exercise. PE should have never been downsized in our schools as it has been in the past 20 years.


    • Mike – thanks for the comment. Although compliance with Section 504 could require school districts to pay for reasonable modifications, or aids and services, in most cases, we believe that providing these reasonable modifications and necessary aids and services should not create burdensome new costs for school districts. For instance, a simple rules change allowing a one-handed swimmer to use a “one-hand” rather than a “two-hand” touch to finish in competitive swimming would cost nothing. In other words, many schools are already providing equal access to students with disabilities, at little or no cost.

      Cameron Brenchley
      Office of Communications and Outreach

    • My district only claims to be hard pressed financially. I don’t believe it since there is always plenty of money to hire administrators, pay big salaries to administrators, consultants, etc. Instead of believing that all districts are hard pressed financially, look at how the districts allocate their money. You’d be surprised at how much money some districts have.

      Yes, there are districts that struggle financially. What every district will learn is what businesses learned with the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act years ago. It generally costs much less to provide accomodations and integrate disabled people than the naysayers predicted. The sky did not fall.

  16. I am thrilled that this is finally being addressed! My son has been excluded from a sports club before school simply due allergies and asthma because the school has not been willing to accept responsibility for ensuring that a crisis is recognized and addressed per the Allergy Action Plan on file. I had previously elected not to pursue accommodations for extra-curricular activities only because I have limited energy and there were bigger concerns to be addressed. With the release of this guidance, I am confident that my son can very soon join the athletic club which will improve his health and socialization. Many thanks to everyone that has had a hand in writing and communicating this guidance!

  17. Clarification to above post: placement took place December 3, 2012. It’s a public alternative day school for kids with SED eligibility, 2 miles from his home school.

  18. Does this new directive include children with SED (BD) who have been placed in a public day school? I advocated for a family who’s 7th grade boy was denied continuing on the wrestling team at his home middle school, because according to the school psychologist told me and the family, he had to prove himself within the new program. And when able to mainstream back to home school, he could participate in after school sports. The student, who is a good athlete and had a good relationship with the coach, was devastated.

    Can you provide clarity on this issue?


  19. Wow! We have waited for years for this! Thanks you for recognizing how important this is for students with disabilities.
    DOes this apply to colleges and universities.

    • Dave – Although the Guidance addresses K-12 activities, the main principles of inclusion and equal access for students with disabilities embodied in the letter apply to the postsecondary context as well.

      Cameron Brenchley
      Office of Communications and Outreach

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