School Law Advisor Blog

OCR Issues New Guidance on Extra-Curricular Athletic Programs

The United States Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a new Dear Colleague Letter on January 25, 2013, focusing on the responsibilities of school districts to serve students with disabilities in their extra-curricular athletic programs.  Specifically, the Dear Colleague Letter focuses on the rights of students to participate in athletic programs under the guidelines established by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.


The Dear Colleague Letter reminds school districts of the ongoing obligation to ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate in or enjoy the benefits of athletic programs.  As part of the guidance, OCR noted the following: 

  • A school district's legal obligation to comply with Section 504 "supersedes any rule of any association, organization, club, or league that would render a student ineligible to participate, or limit the eligibility of a student to participate" in an athletic team or event. 
  • A school district may not operate its program or activities on the basis of "generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes about disability generally, or specific disabilities in particular." 
  • School districts may require a level of skill or ability for participation in a competitive program or activity, and equal opportunity does not mean that every student with a disability is guaranteed a spot on an athletic team with bona fide try-outs.  However, the participation of students with disabilities must be integrated to the "maximum extent appropriate" based upon an "individualized inquiry." 
  • A school district must consider whether a reasonable modification is legally required, based upon that individual inquiry.  Within the Dear Colleague Letter, OCR provides several examples of required modifications (i.e., providing a visual cue in addition to the starter pistol at track events for a hearing-impaired student; waiving the "two-hand touch" finish for a swimmer with only one hand; providing a staff member to conduct glucose testing and insulin administration for a diabetic student on the gymnastics team). 
  • When a student with a disability participates in extra-curricular athletics, he or she should not be unnecessarily separated from non-disabled student participation (i.e., having separate programs for students with disabilities should occur only when those students cannot participate in the existing programs with reasonable modifications and services).  
  • School districts should offer athletic activities for those students with disabilities who cannot participate in the existing programs with reasonable modifications and services.  To that end, these athletic opportunities "should be supported equally, as with a school district's other athletic activities" and should be designed to consider the "unmet interests of students with disabilities."  In order to meet these unmet interests, school districts are encouraged to: (1) develop district-wide or regional teams for students with disabilities in order to provide competitive experiences; (2) mix male and female students with disabilities on teams together; or (3) offer "allied" or "unified" sports teams on which students with disabilities participate with non-disabled students. 


A copy of the Dear Colleague Letter can be accessed at: