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Education Dept.’s Guidance on Disabled Athletes Could Lead to Changes in College Sports

Last week the Education Department issued new guidelines for elementary and secondary schools related to their treatment of disabled athletes. The department advised schools to make “reasonable modifications” to accommodate certain students, as long as those changes don’t fundamentally alter the way sports are played.

The guidelines focus on K-12. But in its notice, the department’s Office for Civil Rights suggests that its enforcement efforts will extend to higher education as well.

I asked Jeffrey H. Orleans—a senior associate with Alden & Associates, who has experience working with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Congressional statute that protects students with disabilities—to help sort out the possible changes this could bring in college athletics.

Q. How do you see this ultimately affecting college sports?

A. Assuming they begin to define what’s needed as extensively for colleges and universities as they have for K-12 here, and actually enforce it, this is a new set of activities and scrutiny that we will have to define and provide and fund. I think that’s the first change: This new activity will have to be financed.

Q. What sort of conflicts do you see with that?

A. My own personal view is that we have not yet finished providing equal opportunities for women in college athletics, and there could be possible tensions between resources that go toward equal opportunity for women and resources that will need to be devoted in this area, which I would hope we could avoid.

Q. How big of a potential population are we talking about here?

A. There are many, many people with various kinds of disabilities that might affect their ability to play college sports unaltered, who are athletes or who have been athletes and want to continue. Certainly the scope of participation in the Paralympics and the scope of attention to it indicate that there is a great potential population here.

Q. Does this change speak mostly to adding opportunities for these athletes, improving facilities, or other issues?

A. The guidance really talks about two kinds of accommodations: one for individual athletes or groups of athletes with particular disabilities, and how can we modify existing sports to allow their individual participation. For example, a swimmer who has only one hand should cause us to consider the way we observe touches on a wall.

The real cost will come in sports that are separate for disabled athletes—wheelchair basketball, for example, or modified ice hockey. Whenever we’re talking about creating new teams with coaches and equipment and travel—even if the existing facilities are completely adequate—there’s a cost of new teams.

One thing the guidance is silent on—because it’s not applicable in K-12—is the question of athletic scholarships. I don’t know how OCR intends to answer that, but that obviously has a cost implication.

Q. If you spin this ahead 10 years, what do you see?

A. Well, first of all, this is a tremendous opportunity. Where there is steady enforcement and clarity, and people have time to change and everyone who is involved works together, this becomes visible, attractive, and sends a positive message to the student body and the community.

What’s exciting is that the best opportunities may not necessarily be based on the Division I, II, or III structure, but what can institutions within, say, 20 miles of Independence Hall, or of the North Carolina capital in Raleigh, do together to provide opportunities for their students and potential students? This offers a potentially whole new way of organizing ourselves athletically.

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