Today, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a Dear Colleague Letter clarifying school’s obligations under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehab Act) to provide extracurricular athletic opportunities for students with disabilities. The OCR’s announcement underscores our belief that every student, regardless of sex, means, race, religion… and ability, should be able to reap the benefits of sports.
This major advancement comes directly after Tuesday’s announcement that U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had lifted the ban against military women in combat positions.
Make no mistake – both of these society-busters owe credit to Title IX, as 40 years of advancements for women in all fields have brought us to today.
The Rehabilitation Act’s New Regulations are Similar to Title IX for Girls and Women
The OCR’s Dear Colleague Letter is a landmark moment for students with disabilities. Not only does it send an extremely loud message to schools that students with disabilities must be provided opportunities for physical activity equal to those of students without disabilities, it addresses, with significance, the systematic exclusion and discrimination these students face.
“The power of sport is remarkable in that it has given historically marginalized populations like women and individuals with disabilities a visible public platform and a voice. I’m encouraged by the Department of Education’s new policies which seek to protect and promote the inclusion of students with disabilities, just as Title IX has done for women,” said Aimee Mullins, Women’s Sports Foundation Past President, U.S. Chef de Mission for the London 2012 Paralympic Games and the first male or female amputee to compete in NCAA.
Specifically, the Dear Colleague Letter does the following for schools:
1. Clarifies when and how schools must include students with disabilities in mainstream athletic programs
2. Defines what true equal treatment of student athletes with disabilities means
3. Encourages and provides a road map for schools to create adapted programs for students with disabilities
The policies of the Dear Colleague Letter apply to all levels of education, including both interscholastic and intercollegiate athletic opportunities. Key policies outlined include: creation of grievance procedures, prohibition of reliance on stereotypes, provision of equal opportunity and creation of adapted athletic programs.
It is our hope that the same societal changes experienced by able-bodied athletes — higher self‐esteem, better body image and higher rates of academic success – will happen for those athletes with disabilities.
“The power of sport for social change continues to inspire me. I hope the Department of Education’s new regulations will be as powerful for athletes with disabilities as Title IX has proven to be for women,” said Billie Jean King, WSF Founder.
Almost a decade in the making, the Letter began as the brainchild of the Women’s Sports Foundation and then-Executive Director Donna Lopiano. We congratulate Terri Lakowski, former WSF Public Policy Director and current CEO of Active Policy Solutions, whose steadfast commitment to the issue as policy chair of the Inclusive Fitness Coalition brought upon this major advancement today.
“I applaud DOE’s action and the Women’s Sports Foundation which continues to champion equitable sports opportunities for all, regardless of gender, race or classified ‘ability’,” said Mullins.
Title IX Has Allowed Girls and Women to Demonstrate Their Abilities
A natural outgrowth of the 40 years of Title IX, Secretary Panetta’s announcement yesterday is another landmark moment. It’s impossible to watch female athletes competing at elite levels and not be inspired by their strength and resilience. The same can be said for military women, who are now officially recognized for their roles in combat and can now fully progress in their careers. Title IX’s legislation, not just applicable to sports but to all facets of education, shows just how physically and emotionally ready women are to serve our country.
Olympic Diving Champion, Micki King, is a retired Air Force Colonel, who spent 26 years on active duty (1966-1992). King was a lieutenant during the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games where she was leading in the finals with two dives left, but hit the board on her second to last dive and broke her left arm. Her final dive with a broken arm earned very poor scores and she dropped from first to fourth place – no medal.
King balanced her Air Force duty and intensive training for the next four years and in 1972 (Munich) now a Captain, Micki King won the gold medal doing the same final dive she did with a broken arm in Mexico.
“I served during the Viet Nam conflict and was told straight out women were not capable for combat. In that day, all women were in the same mold: fragile, weak, unstable, afraid and certainly not strong enough to endure the hardship of combat. I knew that mold was not me, but I had no chance to prove myself. I could do a front 3 ½ somersault off a platform 33 feet high (three story’s up) but was told I ‘didn’t have what it takes to carry an M-16 for a mile in the mud,’” said King.
“Military women, as with female athletes 40 years ago, can now officially show the world their prowess, their strength, and their guts under the challenge of combat. Just as women athletes proved their athletic abilities when Title IX unleashed them, our military women will be recognized war heroes from now forward.”
More Athletes Sound Off:
“Sports have been the center of my world since I was five years old. Without sports I would be lost. My love for competition was reignited after joining the wheelchair basketball team at the University of Mexico. The educational opportunity afforded to me helped pay for my education, let me travel the world and establish a career as a professional athlete. I hope the DOE’s action will open doors for individuals with disabilities to pursue their athleticism and make physical fitness a central part of their lives, just as I did.” — Alana Nichols, Wheelchair Basketball and Alpine Skiing, Five-time Paralympic medalist, four-time World Championships medalist, three-time U.S. National champion
“The new guidance set forth by the Department of Education has been long-awaited. One day we will look back and wonder why we ever required a law to protect the inclusion of students with disabilities in our nation’s physical education and athletic programs. I’m proud that my personal story has sparked changes in national legislation, and given my own sister – a high school junior – the freedom to compete.” — Tatyana McFadden, Track & Field, Three-time 2012 Paralympic gold medalist, Women’s Sports Foundation Sportswoman of the Year Finalist (2012)