Schools warned to accommodate athletes with disabilities - WSMV Channel 4

Schools warned to accommodate athletes with disabilities

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When it comes to a longtime law regarding students with disabilities, some schools could be coming up short. The law requires schools to make "reasonable accommodations" for students to participate in athletics.

On Friday, the Obama administration issued a stern reminder. The U.S. Department of Education said schools must give students with disabilities equal opportunities to participate in extracurricular athletics, including varsity sports. And if existing sports don't meet the needs of those students, schools must create additional athletic programs.

The department's Office for Civil Rights pointed to a 2010 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that said students with disabilities were not getting equal opportunities to participate in sports, a right they were granted under the Rehabilitation Act, passed in 1973.

Denying students with disabilities participation meant that they "may not have equitable access to the health and social benefits" of playing sports, the education department said in a statement Friday.

The Hillwood Toppers took on the Cane Ridge Ravens Friday night in Nashville. But the highlight of the game wasn't a 3-point shot, it was the crowning of this year's homecoming court which included a special needs student named Gracie.

Desean Hancock, this year's homecoming king, chose Gracie as his queen. "I've known Gracie ever since my sophomore year. And one day I passed her in the hall and thought, 'What am I doing?' I thought 'You need to ask Gracie,'" Hancock said.

That is just one of the ways the Metro school is ensuring students with special needs are included in extra-curricular activities, something the government accountability office found some schools have dropped the ball on recently.

"There were some problems with schools making sure some kids were accommodated," Michele Johnson said, the managing attorney for the Tennessee Justice Center.

Johnson works closely with families with children with disabilities. She said Friday the Department of Education reminded schools to provide "reasonable modifications" to allow students with disabilities to participate in athletics.

"Children with disabilities can do lots of things that I think our society sometimes doesn't really give them the opportunity to," Johnson explained.

"We've been doing this for years," said Bernard Childress, executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association.

Childress was on that conference call Friday. Channel 4 News caught up with him at their annual state bowling tournament. He said part of his organization's job is not only to educate, but ensure all Tennessee high schools accommodate student athletes, whatever their disability.

"An example, let's say, we had a deaf kid in track and wants to run the 100-meter-dash and they couldn't hear the gun, so you make an adjustment to use a flag. Put it up where they can actually see it," Childress said.

Johnson added, "You don't have to give kids with disabilities an unfair advantage but you have to give them a fair shake."

Under the law, schools cannot deny a student with disabilities a slot on a sports team because a coach believes he or she can't compete. Schools that don't comply could lose federal funding.

Copyright 2013 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. also contributed to the report.

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