By Eric M. Johnson
(Reuters) - U.S. schools must give disabled students the chance to compete in extracurricular sports alongside their able-bodied classmates, or else provide them with their own programs, the federal government said in new guidelines issued on Friday.
The Education Department issued the directives to clarify schools' legal obligations to their disabled students, and to urge school districts to work with community organizations to "increase athletic opportunities" for them.
"Participation in extracurricular athletics can be a critical part of a student's overall educational experience," said Seth Galanter, of the department's civil rights office. "Schools must ensure equal access to that rewarding experience for students with disabilities," he added.
The 1973 Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, including public education.
The directive followed a critical report by the Government Accountability Office that found disabled students were not being given the same chance to take part in school sports, and recommended that the department clarify and communicate to schools their responsibilities.
Examples of reasonable modifications schools might make to meet their responsibilities included providing "visual clues" alongside a starter pistol to allow hearing disabled students to compete in track events, and waiving the "two-hand touch" finish at swim meets to allow one-armed swimmers to compete.
The new directive was seen by advocates for the disabled as on a par with the 1972 "Title IX" rule that forced schools to provide equal athletic opportunities to girls.
It was also welcomed by disabled student competitors, among them Casey Followay, a 15-year-old high school track athlete confined to a wheelchair by a birth defect, who under current rules, has to race on his own.
"This will help me become a better athlete conditioning- wise, because I have something to push for," said Followay, who filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights in 2011 asking that he be allowed to run alongside, but not against, the able-bodied.
But some detractors saw the directive as an overreach by the department that could potentially place additional cost burdens on schools at a time of constrained budgets.
"This is just a straight-up unfunded mandate ... Americans support giving equal opportunities. We need to have some deliberation on the extent," said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
"The problem is this was done without any deliberation in Congress and no public input and it is not clear how expansive it will be. Just how far must a school district go to be compliant?"
(Editing by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)