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Title IX redux? Education Dept. says school sports can't shut out disabled.

The Education Department issued a letter Friday advising public schools how to offer equal opportunities for disabled students in sports. Some say it is a landmark moment.

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Coming soon to a school sporting event near you: more participation of students with disabilities.

The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued guidance to schools Friday to clarify their obligation to provide equal opportunities in athletics as part of the broader effort to avoid discriminating against disabled students.

“It’s really a landmark moment for students with disabilities: This will do for them what Title IX has done for women,” says Terri Lakowski, CEO of Active Policy Solutions, an organization in Washington that helps the Inclusive Fitness Coalition lobby for policy changes.

Advocates for disabled students say that too often they are shut out of school sports because of stereotypes or a lack of understanding of how to accommodate their disabilities. When they are encouraged to participate in sports, the advocates say, it often gives a life-changing boost to their confidence, independence, health, and motivation to stay in school.

“Sports can provide invaluable lessons in discipline, selflessness, passion and courage, and this guidance will help schools ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to benefit from the life lessons they can learn on the playing field or on the court,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement Friday.

The announcement does raise questions, however, about how far schools will be expected to go – and at what expense – to offer sports for students who need more than just a minor accommodation. Will offering one wheelchair sport, such as basketball, be enough, or will a district have to offer wheelchair tennis and volleyball if they offer those sports to nondisabled students, for instance?

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