In a landmark decision, the U.S. Education Department will instruct schools that students with disabilities must be included in sports programs or schools must provide equal alternative options.
The decision is similar to Title IX, which expanded athletic opportunities for women, and could bring about future changes to school budgets and locker room accessibility.
Schools will be instructed to make "reasonable modifications" for students with disabilities or create athletic programs that have equal standing as mainstream programs.
"This is a landmark moment for students with disabilities. This will do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women," Terri Lakowski, who led a decade-long push for the changes, told The Associated Press. "This is a huge victory."
Federal laws, including the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, require states to provide a free public education to all students and bans 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.
Several top administrators with Hamilton County Schools said late Thursday that they hadn't heard of the changes therefore couldn't comment on potential local effects. But Margaret Abernathy, director of the district's special education department, did note that many students with disabilities already participate in athletics across the county.
Sequatchie County Principal Tommy Layne, who coached boys' and girls' basketball, baseball, softball, football and golf in a 25-year career at Whitwell and Sequatchie County before moving into administration, said, "Every kid has a right to participate or try out for a team."
Layne also currently serves on the TSSAA Board of Control.
"I'm all for a rule that makes sure a kid has a chance to participate. I never cut a kid because they were handicap and I wouldn't give them special treatment because they are either," he said. "You just want them to have the chance to be part of the team and participate, but this rule won't determine who gets into the games or gets playing time.
"One concern could be how it will affect small schools or small sports programs financially," he said. "Some of them don't have a lot of money to fund additional needs like this."
According to The Associated Press, a Government Accountability Office study in 2010 found that students with disabilities participated in athletics at consistently lower rates than those without. The study also suggested the benefits of exercise among children with disabilities may be even more important because they are at greater risk of being inactive. Education Department officials emphasized they did not intend to change sports' traditions dramatically or guarantee students with disabilities a spot on competitive teams. Instead, they insisted schools cannot exclude students based on their disabilities if they can keep up with their classmates.
Hixson senior William Nelson is an example of a local prep athlete who has overcome a disability to participate in athletics. Born with a thumb but no fingers on his left hand, Nelson was cut from the middle school basketball team twice and considered giving up the sport. However he tried out again as a freshman, made the team and has been a part of the Wildcats' program ever since, averaging six points, five rebounds and two steals this season.
Some states already offer such programs. Maryland, for instance, passed a law in 2008 that required schools to create equal opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in physical education programs and play on mainstream athletic teams. And Minnesota awards state titles for disabled student athletes in six sports.
"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 told The Associated Press.
Staff writer Kevin Hardy contributed to this report.