We all know by now that some modifications and accommodations are required to provide students with disabilities equal access to extracurricular activities. But the details can be tricky for even the most well-seasoned special education professionals. Our own John Swinney will be tackling this and other exciting student activities topics tomorrow, April 12, 2019, at the Illinois Directors of Student Activities State Convention in Rosemont. He hopes to see many familiar faces there! For those who want a taste of what he will discuss on this hot topic, read on for the four key questions to ask (and insight on how to apply them)! Section 504 requires districts to ensure that students with disabilities receive opportunities for participation in athletics and extracurricular activities equal to those of their non-disabled peers. Both Section 504 and the IDEA also require schools to provide students with disabilities a free, appropriate public education (FAPE), and the IDEA specifically requires teams to take steps to provide “nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities in the manner necessary to afford children with disabilities an equal opportunity for participation in those services and activities.” Typically, the Section 504 standard is where disagreement arises, and so we will focus on the requirement that a school provide necessary aids, services, or reasonable modifications to allow students with disabilities equal access to an activity unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of the activity.

We know (thanks OCR) that “[e]qual opportunity does not mean . . . that every student with a disability is guaranteed a spot on an athletic team for which other students must try out.” We also know that “school districts may require a level of skill or ability of a student in order for that student to participate in a selective or competitive program or activity, so long as the selection or competition criteria are not discriminatory.” And there is no requirement that schools necessarily create separate or different activities just for students with disabilities.

But what exactly IS required, and when? To answer that question, ask yourself four more:

  1. Is the student a qualified student with a disability?
  2. Is a modification or accommodation necessary for equal opportunity?
  3. Would there be a fundamental alteration if the modification/accommodation were allowed?
  4. Are other modifications, aids, or services available that would not be a fundamental alteration?

When assessing the second question (is a modification or accommodation required), keep in mind that basing decisions regarding a student’s participation on stereotypes or assumptions about how a disability may limit the student will almost always bring trouble. Coaches should use the same criteria for participation for students with disabilities as for other students. A student’s hearing impairment has no impact on his ability to play basketball, so don’t assume that he can’t play just because of the disability. Simple enough, right?

Keep in mind that when assessing whether an accommodation or modification is necessary, there must be an individualized inquiry. This does not necessarily mean that the student’s 504 or IEP team must meet, but there must be a reasonable, timely, good-faith effort by the individuals with the appropriate knowledge and expertise (such as the student’s coach, district athletics official, student, student’s parent, and student’s teacher(s)) to determine whether there are reasonable modifications or aids and services that would provide that student with equal access to the particular activity.

When assessing the third issue (fundamental alteration), we’ve heard it a million times: If a modification is necessary for a student to participate, it must be allowed unless doing so would result in a fundamental alteration of the nature of the extracurricular athletic activity. But what does that really mean? It generally means that the change would either (1) alter an essential aspect of an activity or (2) give a student an unfair advantage over others. Here are some examples:

Required Modification “Fundamental Alteration”
Allowing an archer with cerebral palsy to use a stand to help her hold a bow. Modifying the archery bow itself, which is not allowed per national standards.
Using a light and a starter pistol to signal the start of the race for a deaf runner to start a race, even if there is concern about distraction to other runners. A swim team member who wanted to leave the pool unpredictably during practices and meets because of fear of drowning, when being in the pool for a certain amount of time is required.
Allowing a swim team member born with one hand to finish a race by touching the wall with one hand while simultaneously having the other hand fully stretched forward, even though other team members are judged by a “two-hand touch” rule. Allowing a swim team member born with one hand to finish a race by just touching the wall with one hand, when other team members are judged by a “two-hand touch” rule.
Assisting with the administration of insulin so a student with disabilities can participate in gymnastics. Dismissing a student from the volleyball team for a non-disability-related three-day suspension, when the team had a uniformly applied rule requiring dismissal after missing three days of practice.

And remember, if a requested modification would constitute a fundamental alteration, the school district is still required to determine if other modifications are available that would permit the student’s participation. Also, it’s best practice to provide procedural safeguards if a request for a modification is denied.