We all have the right to be athletes

Last week the Department of Education issued guidance for schools through a Dear Colleague Letter , on how to provide equal opportunity to students with disabilities in extracurricular athletics.

Here are the main points of the guidance:

  • A school district may not operate its program or activity on the basis of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes about disability generally, or specific disabilities in particular. A school district also may not rely on generalizations about what students with a type of disability are capable of—one student with a certain type of disability may not be able to play a certain type of sport, but another student with the same disability may be able to play that sport.

  • A school district that offers extracurricular athletics must do so in such manner as is necessary to afford qualified students with disabilities an equal opportunity for participation. This means making reasonable modifications and providing those aids and services that are necessary to ensure an equal opportunity to participate, unless the school district can show that doing so would be a fundamental alteration to its program.

  • Students with disabilities who cannot participate in the school district’s existing extracurricular athletics program – even with reasonable modifications or aids and services – should still have an equal opportunity to receive the benefits of extracurricular athletics. When the interests and abilities of some students with disabilities cannot be as fully and effectively met by the school district’s existing extracurricular athletic program, the school district should create additional sfs headshot (3) opportunities for those students with disabilities.

This is a landmark action taken by the DOE not just because it clarifies how extracurricular athletics are covered in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or because it puts schools on notice that they must provide equality opportunity. It’s landmark because it challenges once again our notion of WHO can participate in sport in this country. It forces is to examine WHO sports are for and WHAT they are for in relation to our children. And in America that scares the sport establishment.

The arguments I have heard in opposition to this new guidance have been off the chart discriminatory and downright ignorant. Some of them are as follows:

  • So now will we have to allow any kid in a wheelchair to play on the basketball team?

  • My kid had to try out, so should these kids.

  • We will diminish the competitiveness of sport.

  • If they can’t play, then why should we have to provide them another option? My kid doesn’t get a separate league if he doesn’t make the team.

  • This is going to cost too much and we already have budget issues.

Interestingly, when blacks were given access to participate in sport we heard similar complaints, when women were given access we heard similar complaints, and now that students with disabilities are given access we hear the same issues. 

To begin to think that sport is a civil right is something very powerful.  We ALL have the right be athletes. When we talk about it in the context of race or gender it’s much easier to reconcile in our mind now. We can see an athlete in a typically abled person, because that is what our society upholds as an athlete. We have long held that someone with a disability can overcome the odds and become successful in sports but we have also held that they generally don’t have the ability to become an athlete . Programs like AccesSport America are challenging that idea by creating programs in the Boston Public Schools and beyond that ask students with disabilities to not just participate but have higher expectations for skill development and performance; to look at themselves as athletes.

We need to stop marginalizing and stereotyping students with disabilities. They can be and want to be athletes. And just like every other kid they may have dreams of hitting a game winning shot or making an Olympic team; and not out of charity. They want and need the benefits of being part of a team, of building connections and developing skill. They want and need, as all students, the physical and psychological benefits of sport participation.

I have a friend who never played sports in high school. She actually was quite overweight and was often discouraged from sport. She started running a few years ago and now competes in marathons and triathlons. When I tell her how impressed with what an athletes she is, her reply is, “well, I’m not an athlete.” Why does she tell me that? Because in her mind an athlete is muscular, competed on teams, is not overweight, and the list goes on…  So what this guidance is doing is finally forcing us to rethink our narrow, exclusive view of WHO an athlete is and WHAT athletics are for. 

Here is my hope from this guidance:

1. We will begin in elementary school through high school to provide all students with disabilities quality physical education to cultivate and help develop sport skills.

2. We will come together as communities to look at our youth leagues and recreational programs to see how we might be more inclusive. And where we might be able to create programs.

3. We will come together as school districts to be proactive in looking at options for students with disabilities.

4. We will not just wait for a student to ask to play we will seek students out and encourage them to participate.

5. College intramural programs will examine current offerings and see how they can be more inclusive and again, seek out students with disabilities to participate.

6. Schools and communities will create advisory boards consisting of a diverse group of students to examine how they can be more inclusive.

And most importantly, we will redefine what an athlete is and begin to understand that EVERYONE can be an athlete and has the RIGHT to participate. Come an America, we live for these opportunities to do what it right, what it fair, and what respects the humanity in all of us.

Diana Cutaia was the Director of Athletics and co-founder of the Sport based-Youth Development program at Wheelock College from 2005-2012. She has over 20 years’ experience in using sport as a tool for positive youth development and is a leading expert on topics such as physical activity, girls in sport, peaceful coaching, and positive cultures in sport. She is the owner of Coaching Peace Consulting, LLC. You can reach her at Diana@coachingpeace.com


No surprise that Diana hit the nail on the head. Athletes is so much more than just playing a sport and its social and personal ramifications require those leading these young people to understand all of that and be very clear about standards of diversity, fairness and equality.

Posted @ Friday, February 01, 2013 9:26 AM by Ruth N. Bramson