United States Department of Education Guidance Calls for Leveling the Playing Field for Students with Disabilities

January 25, 2013

Full Details

To read the full guidance click here. Additional information on the Special Olympics Unified Sports® program and Project UNIFY can be found  here.

US Department of Education Guidance

Washington, DC, 25 January, 2013 - Today, the United States Department of Education (ED) released new guidance to schools and school systems throughout the nation that receive federal aid about the requirements of providing sports opportunities for students with disabilities. The guidance clarifies the existing legal obligations of school districts to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular athletics, and identifies the responsibilities that schools and school systems have under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The key messages in the new guidance could be summarized as the following:

  • Reasonable modifications for children with disabilities to participate in existing sports activities are required; the basic nature of a sport does not need to be compromised under this guidance, but where reasonable modifications do not alter the nature of the sport, they must be made.
  • School districts and schools must also provide aids and services to enable students with disabilities to participate if the lack of such aids and services would deny those students an equal opportunity for participation.
  • Exclusion of students from sports activities is not acceptable to Special Olympics. Therefore, If children with disabilities cannot be accommodated within existing programs, the guidance urges—but does not require—schools to work within their broader communities to expand opportunities for students with disabilities, including, for example, the creation of separate teams, such as a wheelchair basketball team or an “allied” or “unified” team on which students with disabilities participate with students without disabilities. 
  • Acknowledging that if there are safety issues involved in youth sports, schools need to determine if adjustments in existing programs can be reasonably accomplished without creating real safety issues for students that cannot be mitigated.


Teams that mix people with and without intellectual disabilities have been part of Special Olympics for many years. Learn more about Unified Sports

Allied and Unified

The Special Olympics community applauds President Barack Obama for creating the significant call to action which will not only create equality in schools for students with disabilities, but will all lead to more welcoming and tolerant schools across America. The specific call out to “allied or “unified” sports, is especially encouraging, as this has been a part of the Special Olympics offering for many years. Special Olympics Unified Sports ®, an inclusive sports program that combines approximately equal number of individuals with intellectual disabilities and partners without intellectual disabilities on teams for training and competition, is a significantly growing program that has direct results in building more inclusive school climates. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has supported Unified Sports ®over the past year, including the development of a specific online coaches’ education course located at www.NFHSLearn.com.

Special Olympics can also offer the Special Olympics Project UNIFY® Program as a support to schools to promote an atmosphere of inclusiveness that we are all trying to achieve in our schools and in our sports programming. Project UNIFY uses inclusive sports activities, youth leadership and activation to provide all students opportunities for participation and acceptance. This program, a direct result of Department of Education funding, has shown proven results in providing students opportunities to play sports together, enhance school climate and give students increased physical, social and educational skills.

"Vitally Important"

According to Special Olympics International Chairman and CEO Timothy Shriver, “This new guidance is vitally important to students with disabilities. Special Olympics has pursued a fully inclusive sports participation path for people with various levels of intellectual capabilities and sporting abilities throughout our history, and with Unified Sports® since 1989. We know the direct benefits from sports participation to individuals with intellectual disabilities, as well as their Unified Sports® teammates without such disabilities.” The Guidance emphasizes access and participation for Special Olympics will rely heavily, especially in the coming months, on an intensive and comprehensive outreach and communications process. Still, the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights does have the authority to seek redress where there is evidence that the provisions of underlying law are not being implemented.

The State of Maryland passed landmark legislation in July, 2008 entitled the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Law. The underlying principles of the Department of Education Guidance – expanding opportunities to students with disabilities to participate in existing sports programs, or potentially creating new ones where none exist -- are in alignment with the Maryland’s sports equity law. Special Olympics Maryland works with 19 of the 24 school systems throughout the state conducting Unified Sports® programs that fulfill the spirit and intent of their law, and provide a beneficial and equitable environment for all students with and without intellectual disabilities.

“Special Olympics has been a leader in bringing sport to people with intellectual disabilities and over the past 4 years has worked closely with the United States Department of Education, school districts and schools around the country through Project UNIFY to make such important opportunities available to students. With this new guidance, we stand ready to do even more”, said Shriver. “Our experience has demonstrated that the vast majority of schools just do not have the types of sport programs which children with various levels of disability need. We hope that educators will take this opportunity to commit to sports programming that will meet the social, psychological and physical need of children with disabilities.”

Note: To read the full guidance click here. Additional information on the Special Olympics Unified Sports®  program and Project UNIFY can be found here.


For more information, please contact:
Mandy Murphy

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