It’s March, meaning we are in one of the peak times for sports. It’s tournament time for basketball, including the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Tournaments. The OHSAA Boys State Basketball Tournament is underway as of the time of this writing, with the OHSAA Girls State Basketball Tournament wrapping up just a few days ago. We all enjoy these traditions, and for many students who play any sport, these are core and formative experiences in their education. It’s important to make sure your districts are including students with disabilities in these experiences.

Sec. 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 guarantees the right of students with disabilities to an opportunity to benefit from the school district’s program equal to that of students without disabilities. This includes the school district’s extracurricular activities such as athletics.  Sec. 504’s definition of an individual with a disability is quite broad, including any student who: (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) has a record of such an impairment; or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.

What inclusion in athletics looks like for an individual student depends on the child’s individual circumstances and the activity involved. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has issued guidance on a district’s obligation to enable participation in athletics under Sec. 504.  School districts generally should provide students with disabilities accommodations and/or aids and services that are necessary to ensure an equal opportunity to participate, unless the school district can show that doing so would be a fundamental alteration to its program. Schools may implement bona fide safety standards and are not required to provide services or accommodations that would provide the student with a disability with a competitive advantage over other students—the guarantee is for an equal opportunity.

A school district is required to conduct an “individualized inquiry” to determine whether a student can participate with certain accommodations or modifications or whether any such change would constitute a fundamental alteration of the program. A change may constitute a fundamental alteration if it alters some essential aspect of a game or provides the student with an improper competitive advantage. If a proposed accommodation constitutes a fundamental alteration, the school district should consider whether other accommodations or modifications might enable the student’s participation prior to excluding the student outright.

For some specific examples addressed by OCR, please consult the guidance linked above. OSBA’s legal division is happy to answer general questions from members about a school’s obligations under Sec. 504 on the legal hotline at 859-OSBA-LAW. For questions or guidance on a specific situation, please consult your district’s legal counsel.


Posted by John R. Price on 3/17/2023