Group of children in on a track

It can be tough for exceptional children who have an interest in playing sports.  It may be that a child with a disability can run, jump, swim, etc. just as well as his or her non-disabled peers, but what if those gym class foot races evolve into an interest in running for the school track team?

Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, disabled students are guaranteed an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular athletics alongside their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate for the student.  That often means the school must make modifications that are necessary to guarantee the disabled child’s equal opportunity to participate.  However, there are some differences related to exceptional child athletes that parents should understand.

A child’s disability does not automatically guarantee them a spot on the team.  Schools can require a certain level of skill and ability before allowing a student to participate in an athletic activity.  Many schools hold “try-outs” before a given sport’s season commences for this purpose.  So, a disabled child, even with a modification, may still need to demonstrate that he or she has the requisite skill and ability if the school would require a non-disabled student to do so.

We must also look at how the requested modification alters the nature of the sport.  If the modification will fundamentally alter the nature of the extracurricular athletic activity, then the school will not be required to make the modification.  It may also be that a requested modification would give the disabled student an unfair advantage over other players.  The school will not be required to make the modification under those circumstances either.

What might that mean for your exceptional child athlete?  As an example, let’s revisit our exceptional child wanting to run for the high school track team.  Let’s say that this school district holds track meets at the local outdoor track and begins a race by the firing of a starter’s pistol into the air.  Let’s also say the child runs well enough to earn a spot on the team but is deaf.  Even though the child can run well enough to compete with his or her non-disabled peers, the child can’t participate equally because he or she wouldn’t hear the starter’s pistol signaling the beginning of the race.

So, whether our exceptional child can compete depends on whether a modification can be made to allow the disabled runner to participate equally without fundamentally altering the nature of running track for other runners; and, that’s why it can be tough for exceptional child athletes.  Such a modification doesn’t always exist.  In the case of our track runner, the district could simply change the cue to start the race to something visual.  Maybe flip a light from red to green or something like that.  But if our track runner had a different disability or wanted to participate in a different sport, it might be that any necessary modification would fundamentally alter the nature for everyone else.  If that is the case, then there’s likely nothing we can do.

If you are the parent of an exceptional child athlete who believes your child’s right to equally participate in extracurricular athletics is being violated, give us a call at 888-748-KING (5464).  With offices across the Carolinas, we are here to serve you and your student-athlete.

Visit our Special Education blog page for more information.

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