When Kareem Dale, now a special advisor to President Barack Obama, was in high school, all he wanted to do was wrestle. But as a student who was partially blind, that wasn't easy.
Dale's school made it possible for him to participate in the sport by creating a rule that wrestlers always needed to be touching their opponent. "It allowed me to wrestle throughout public high school," Dale said. "That experience of wrestling gave me confidence, it made me healthier, it was really an extraordinary experience."
But hundreds of other students with disabilities may not have had an opportunity in school sports, a 2010 Government Accountability Office report suggested. The U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights on Friday is sending school districts a 13-page guidance document that spells out the rights of students with disabilities to participate in school athletics.
Laura Kaloi, the public policy director for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said the guidance was long delayed. "The GAO issued this report and the Department of Education kind of sat on it," Kaloi said. "I'm really happy to see finally that the Office of Civil Rights is putting out this guidance, making these rights crystal clear."
The guidance follows 84 complaints to the Office of Civil Rights from parents of students with disabilities over the last four years.
The guidance document outlines five principles with specific examples for enforcement of the law, according to Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary for the Education Department Office of Civil Rights. Schools can't rely on generalizations of a student's disabilities when crafting their sports offerings. They must consider each student and provide "reasonable modifications" to games, but not "fundamental alterations" that would significantly change the game or give students with disabilities an advantage. It requires that sports programs be safe.
School districts also have to provide qualified students with required aides -- during school and after school. For example, a student with diabetes who has a school aide monitor his blood sugar and insulin during the school day is entitled to that aide during extracurricular gymnastics.
The guidance highlights that the "unnecessary separation of kids with disabilities is both discriminatory and harmful," Galanter said.
Parents often run into obstacles when trying to get modifications for their children with disabilities, said Garth Tymerson, a Wisconsin professor who prepares physical education instructors for teaching special-education kids. He said the guidance "will put some fuel into the fire of people who want to get more help." Tymerson added that sports participation is particularly important for students who have disabilities because their obesity rates tend to be higher.
“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,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement.
The issue is personal for some parents, including Kaloi. Her son has dyslexia and dysgraphia. Once, an evaluator explained to her son that he had difficulty processing number sequences. His eyes lit up. "Wow, is that why I can't remember the jumprope routine in physical education?" Kaloi remembers him asking. "My husband and I felt horrible. We focused on the reading, the writing and social studies, but the first thing in my son's mind was, 'Why can't I keep up the jumprope routine?' It made him feel like he couldn't do what the other kids were doing. A lightbulb went off for me as a parent."
But Kaloi said she's unsure how much the guidance will help students. "It takes a really savvy parent to put this document down on the table and say, 'Look, you're doing x, y and z and this document says you can't,'" she said. "But it shows that schools needed a reminder. … We want the same thing any parent wants: We just want them participating in art and music, we want them sitting with friends at lunch."