WASHINGTON -- Breaking new ground, the Education Department is telling schools that they must include students with disabilities in sports programs or provide equal alternatives.
The directive, reminiscent of the Title IX expansion of athletic opportunities for women, could bring sweeping changes to school budgets and locker rooms for years.
Schools would have to make "reasonable modifications" for students with disabilities or create parallel athletic programs that have comparable standing as mainstream programs.
"Sports can provide invaluable lessons in discipline, selflessness, passion and courage, and this guidance will help schools ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to benefit from the life lessons they can learn on the playing field or on the court," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement announcing the new guidance today.
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Federal laws, including the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, require states to provide public education to all students and ban schools that receive federal funds from discriminating against students with disabilities.
Going further, the new directive from the Education Department's civil-rights division explicitly tells schools and colleges that access to interscholastic, intramural and intercollegiate athletics is a right.
"This is a landmark moment for students with disabilities. This will do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women," said Terri Lakowski, who led a coalition that sought the changes for a decade. "This is a huge victory."
Education Department officials emphasized that they do not intend to dramatically change sports traditions or to guarantee students with disabilities a spot on competitive teams. Instead, they insisted that schools cannot exclude students based on their disabilities if they can keep up with their classmates.
"It's not about changing the nature of the game or the athletic activity," said Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary for civil rights.
It's not clear whether the guidelines will inspire a sudden uptick in sports participation. Female participation soared after Title IX guidance instructed schools to treat female athletes on a par with males. Many schools cut some men's teams, citing the need to pay for women's teams.
Schools face no deadline to comply with the disabilities directive.
Activists cheered the changes.
"This is historic," said Bev Vaughn, executive director of the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs, a nonprofit group that works with schools to set up sports programs for students with disabilities. "It's going to open up a whole new door of opportunity to our nation's schoolchildren."