Learn to build a world where everyone belongs. Take free classes at OBI University.   Start Now

By: Amariah Hash and Stephen Menendian

On January 25, 2013, the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights issued new guidance for primary, secondary, and university educators on providing inclusionary athletic opportunities for disabled students. This new guidance was issued by the DOE to help educators better understand schools’ responsibilities under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which provides for equal opportunities for participation in nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities.

This guidance is a major milestone in the path towards a more inclusive society. The guidance strives to promote more inclusive opportunities for disabled students to enjoy the benefits of sports and other extracurricular activities, including the myriad health and social benefits. The guidance provides several illustrative examples. The guidance suggests that, for students with hearing impairments interested in participating in running events such as track, schools should provide visual cues in addition to the starting gun or horn to begin the race. As another example, for students born with only one hand, a swimming competition requirement that two hands touch the final lap wall should be waived or changed to accommodate disabled students.

The guidance is unabashedly integrationist. It encourages school districts and educators to find ways to integrate disabled students into athletic and other extracurricular activities with able bodied students. Intergroup contact theory suggests that these kinds of activities may help break down stereotypes and reduce prejudice in addition to the social and health benefits. However, where that may not be possible, the guidance also encourages districts to create other, equal opportunities for disabled students to compete. For example, districts are encouraged to join other districts in creating inter-district or regional teams or competition. This may also have positive effects in terms of promoting racial diversity as well.

As an experienced educator working with disabled children, the value of integrated athletic activities and improved opportunities to compete cannot be overstated. One of us has been working with disabled students in an inclusive soccer program called E-Soccer (www.e-soccer.org) for the past six years and have seen firsthand the benefits of inclusivity at a peer level. E-Soccers personal mission is ”We are dedicated to empowering children of all abilities to reach their full athletic and social potential”(e-soccer.org). This empowerment has a double effect on the playing field.

The first effect is that the disabled student, in participating with his/her peers at a competitive level, are able to grow in their motor and social skills. Even more importantly, they gain confidence in other areas of their lives in which they socially interact, such as school. As one parent of a down syndrome child that participates in E-Soccer explained, “I believe from seeing my son and some other kids, that because they have confidence they develop here, in being treated with respect, and being honored for who they are here on the E-Soccer field and by typical kids and typical coaches, when they do go into the class and out into the community they expect to be treated with respect and with dignity, so I think that gives them that confidence.”

The second effect is that the typical peers grow in an area rarely addressed in society writ large, empathy and compassion. Typical peers learn how we all face challenges in our lives, disabled or not, and that part of being a good teammate is to use your specific skill set to help others become great. This continues to break down barriers and helps these typical players grow in their leadership, compassion, and making others great.

We are excited to see that we are starting to put into law policies, beyond the IEP, that break down the socially constructed stigmas and prejudices that these students face throughout their lives. Addressing these issues starting at a young age will help to set these special future leaders, educators, and professional sports players free from the restrictions they may face that may not have true merit. We commend the Obama administration for taking this recent action which we personally believe will lead us to a much more fair and inclusive society. This is a dream come true for us as professionals, the disabled community, and society as a whole.

Co-author Amariah Hash will graduate with a degree Sociology from UC Berkeley in May 2013.

The ideas expressed on the Haas Institute blog are not necessarily those of UC Berkeley or the Division of Equity & Inclusion, where the Haas Institute website is hosted. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors. We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and civil liberties.