Fairness and safety have always been primary motives of the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association, says executive director Ed Sheakley.
He says the organization will continue to highlight those focal points following Friday's release of guidelines by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights clarifying schools' legal obligations to provide equal access to student-athletes with disabilities.
“We understand the value of participation for all of our students, and the value that it adds to their educational experience,” Sheakley said. “We're going to work with the Department of Education to enhance the opportunities for all our students, including those with disabilities.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations came out in support of the guidelines as well.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act grants students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in their schools' extracurricular activities. According to the Department of Education's release, a 2010 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that many students with disabilities are not afforded an equal opportunity to participate in athletics, and therefore may not have equitable access to the health and social benefits of athletic participation.
The guidance letter provides examples of the types of reasonable modifications that schools may be required to make to existing policies, practices, or procedures for students with intellectual, developmental, physical or any other type of disability.
Examples of such modifications include:
*The allowance of a visual cue alongside a starter pistol to allow a student with a hearing impairment who is fast enough to qualify for the track team the opportunity to compete.
*The waiver of a rule requiring the “two-hand touch” finish in swim events so that a one-armed swimmer with the requisite ability can participate at swim meets.
The guidelines also note that the law does not require that a student with a disability be allowed to participate in any selective or competitive program offered by a school district, so long as the selection or competition criteria are not discriminatory.
“Participation in extracurricular athletics can be a critical part of a student's overall educational experience,” said Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights. “Schools must ensure equal access to that rewarding experience for students with disabilities.”
Sheakley said he had been in contact with several directors of other states' high school athletic associations after the guidelines were released nationally early Friday.
Neither Sheakley nor any other directors he spoke with had any prior knowledge that the guidelines were going to be released, and Sheakley is continuing to study the lengthy document sent out by the Department of Education.
But he doesn't see anything that points to drastic changes for the member schools of the OSSAA.
“I think our schools are doing a good job with disabled students and their participation in activities,” Sheakley said. “What we look at with disabled students, are reasonable accommodations being made to allow that student to participate, and make sure there's no unfair advantage on either side in those accommodations.
“And we can't compromise safety in those situations. Safety has to be first and foremost. We're all about inclusion, and being able to accommodate disabled students so they can participate.”