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Sports are a civil right for disabled, government says

WASHINGTON -- Breaking new ground, the U.S. Education Department is telling schools they must include students with disabilities in sports programs or provide equal alternative options. 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 to come.

Schools would be required to make “reasonable modifications” for students with disabilities or create parallel athletic programs that have comparable standing as mainstream programs.

“It's wonderful; it's another monumental shift in working with children and adults with disabilities,” said long-time Orange County special-education advocate Frank Donavan, executive director of the Greater Anaheim Special Education Local Plan Area, which serves students in six northern Orange County school districts.

“This takes away us trying to convince people that a special-education student should be a part of an extracurricular activity. Now we can just provide them the tools to do it.”

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.

“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 on Friday.

There is no deadline for schools to comply with the new disabilities directive.

“Orange County school districts will convene in the coming weeks to begin setting local plans for complying with the new federal directive, said Chris Corliss, the Orange County Department of Education's program coordinator for health, sports and physical education.

The goal will be to create guidelines for school officials to determine when and how students with disabilities can safely interact with other student athletes, Corliss said.

“This is already going on in so many ways in so many schools, so I'm confident we'll be able to adapt school sports in a meaningful way as well,” Corliss said. “Wherever you can, I'm sure you're going to see increased accommodations to participate together.”

Orange County officials said schools already were doing a decent job of integrating students with disabilities into school sports.

“It's a minority of individuals – not full school sites – who may think this is not possible or so challenging it's not worthwhile,” Donavan said. “We have to help educate them – this child will need access to a restroom; this child is easily frustrated, so here's a cooling-off period; this child has a hard time reading, so please use visuals whenever possible.”

Register staff writer Scott Martindale contributed to this report.

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