On Friday, the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, issued a guidance detailing the obligations of public elementary and secondary schools to allow students with disabilities to have equal opportunities to participate in extracurricular programs, primarily sporting and athletic activities. I wrote my first law review article on the case of Casey Martin, a golfer with a disability who requested the use of a golf cart in PGA play as a reasonable accommodation under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Martin eventually won in the Supreme Court.
My first impression about the Education Department's guidance was (happy) surprise that it generated so much media attention (it was picked up in numerous national outlets, including here, here, and here). Sports are important in our society, and the benefits of youth participation in athletic activities are well documented. Too often, as the United States Government Accountability Office found in a recent report, students with disabilities have been excluded from these benefits. So I am gratified that the US Department of Education is using its platform to provide leadership in this area.
But I think it is too early to know exactly what this guidance will mean. Disability advocates are comparing it to an earlier Education Department guidance under Title IX instructing schools to treat female athletics on par with male teams. That effort transformed our society, and every time I coach my six-year old daughter's softball or soccer team I am grateful for it. I am hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic, that this will be the ADA equivalent. This guidance does not break any new ground: it merely clarifies existing legal obligations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is hardly a new law. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which also requires schools to grapple with the integration of students with disabilities into school life, has absolutely been a transformative statute. But implementation has been slow, and the law is still underenforced.