Section 504 and Your Child’s Rights to Participate in Extracurricular Activities

While you may know that the law provides protections for your qualified child to be able to access his or her academic education, did you know that the law equally protects your child’s ability to access sports and other extracurricular activities through his or her public school?  Earlier this year, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the United States Department of Education provided guidance to school districts and parents, clarifying that Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) not only applies to your child’s academics, but also applies equally to participation in extracurricular activities provided by the public school.  In fact, OCR noted that extracurricular activities and sports “are an important component of an overall education program,” and provide important health and social benefits to qualified students.

Section 504 requires that students with disabilities have equal opportunity to participate in nonacademic and extracurricular activities equal to that of their typical peers.  Although districts may provide for a selective process requiring a certain level of skill or ability to participate in a particular activity, the criteria used cannot be discriminatory.  The district cannot completely deny your child the opportunity to participate in an extracurricular activity, or an activity that is not equal to that provided to other students.  As with academic classes, the district must also allow your child to participate in the most integrated setting for extracurricular events appropriate to his or her needs, and if a different or separate activity is provided, it must be as effective as that provided to typical students.  Moreover, the district’s obligations under Section 504 (as well as other regulations) supersede any rule made by athletic associations, clubs, or organizations that would prohibit your child’s participation.

The district cannot rely upon generalizations or stereotypes about what students with a particular disability may be capable of accomplishing.  For example, if you child has been diagnosed with ADHD and has an IEP or a 504 Plan allowing for extra time to complete academic tasks and services to assist her with planning and organization, and she tries out for and makes the soccer team, the coach cannot deny her participation in games simply because he believes that she would be unable to play successfully with the time restraints and organizational requirements of the game due to her ADHD diagnosis.  While your daughter would not have the right to play on the soccer team, the coach’s decision as to whether she is allowed to play must be based upon the same criteria the coach uses for other players, such as performance during practice sessions.  It cannot be based upon the stereotype of her ADHD diagnosis.

The district must also ensure that it provides reasonable accommodations and modifications that are necessary to ensure your child’s equal opportunity to participate, unless the district can show that doing so would be a fundamental alternation of the program.  For example, an interscholastic basketball league would not be required to lower basketball hoops by two feet from the standard height for its games in order to accommodate a student’s disability, as that would fundamentally alter the game of basketball.  Equal opportunity also does not mean that every qualified student with a disability is guaranteed a position on a team or activity for which other students must compete.  However, the district must make reasonable modifications to the maximum extent possible to ensure an equal opportunity for your child to participate in extracurricular and sports activities.

In considering whether a modification is required, the district must first look at the individual student’s needs and decide whether modification is necessary, and if it is, whether it alters an essential aspect of the game or activity such that it would be unacceptable even if the modification affected all competitors equally (such as lowering the basketball hoops by two feet).  Even if a modification has only a peripheral impact on the activity, it would not be required if it gave your child an unfair advantage over others and fundamentally altered the character of the activity (if opposing players were prohibited from blocking any of your child’s shots at the basket, for example).  Each potential, reasonable modification for your child must be examined before the district can determine that the activity cannot be modified to fit your child’s needs.  The district should create additional opportunities for students with disabilities that cannot be met fully by existing extracurricular programs.  Therefore, if an interscholastic basketball league had a sufficient number of students in wheelchairs, the districts should create a wheelchair basketball league, keeping in mind that the provision of unnecessarily separate or different services is discriminatory.

Although districts may adopt safety standards, especially in sports, those standards cannot be discriminatory in practice, and the district must consider whether your child can participate safely with reasonable modifications or the provision of aids and services.  The district must provide your child with any needed aids and services for her to participate in an extracurricular activity, if the failure to do so would deny your child with an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities in an integrated manner to the maximum extent appropriate to meet her needs.  For example, if your child has diabetes and has a 504 Plan through which he receives glucose testing and insulin administration during his school days and he wants to participate in the after-school theater group, Section 504 would require the district to provide the same aids and services for your child after-school as during the school day.  If the district refused to provide glucose testing and insulin administration after school, so that he could participate in the theater group, it would have to show that doing so would be a fundamental alteration of the district’s program.  This would be exceptionally difficult for the district to prove given its responsibilities under section 504 and other federal and state regulations.

If your child is interested in participating in extracurricular activities offered or supported by the district, don’t hesitate to ask for the district’s support for your child.  Not only is the district required to do so, but such activities allow your child to practice and develop those important social skills and other discrete skills learned during the school day in the less structured environment of after-school activities.

Sherry Rajaniemi-Gregg is an associate in the Special Education & Disability Rights practice group at Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP in Boston, Massachusetts.

17 thoughts on “Section 504 and Your Child’s Rights to Participate in Extracurricular Activities

  1. What about afterschool sports not provided by the school district. My son plays hockey in our town hockey league. He is 13 and on an iep for specific learning disability.he has been diagnosed with ADHD and NVLD.
    I have tried to be proactive and talk to his coaches about little things- accommodations-that help.
    -making sure he understands a drill
    -being positive and constructive
    My son has trouble with emotional regulation when things get frustrating. His deficits-without positive verbal mediation- can make things get frustrating in a game like Hockey pretty quickly.
    It is really easy to see when this is happening and also easy to diffuse.
    However, since the effects of my son’s disabilities result in behavioral symptoms coaches think it is a choice not a brain response.They are all over him-once making him do push ups on the ice in front of the whole team(something he has a lot of difficulty with due to coordination issues)-often stopping him in the middle of a drill because he is not doing it correctly and yelling at him.
    This year when I tried to talk to the coach he shrugged his shoulders and said”I’m not a psychologist”
    So I gave up with the coaches and just tried to encourage and help my son manage as best as he can.
    Then he got suspended for 30 days for a situation that totally could have been avoided if the coaches had accepted the way his disability manifests itself and provided those few , minuscule devices.
    This suspension was heavy handed. I met with the board and they are under the impression that they have no responsibility to assist kids like my son-they said they “are coaches, not teachers” and “only school supports have to make accommodations for athletes”.
    Is this true?

    • Thanks for your comment. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination by both public and private entities on the basis of disability. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination by any program or activity receiving federal funding. The town league is likely covered by either one or both of these laws. Please feel free call our office to discuss this further.

  2. the same thing happen to me as well went i was in high school i try to get in to band but they told me that there was no room for me but i thank that they where lying to me to keep me out of band thats what i thank it was you tell me if iam wrong or not iam all ears but i dont thank iam wrong

  3. i wsih that i new about this went i was in high school my school clam that i was not allow to take part in band that i wantd to tryout but they told me it was fill up and cant join band thats what they told back in 1984 i have not forgot the words that told me just only wish that new about this if did knew about this might have never happen to me

  4. My son is an out-of-district placement high school student. His daily schedule prohibits him from participating with any athletic try-outs, practices and games afforded by the town. His school offers residential placement but the town rejects that placement decision and completely denies any responsibility to extracurricular activities or social life. Heading to due process hearing & need help.

  5. Can they be denied if their grades aren’t what they are supposed to be but they do have the 504 in place. It is not the child’s fault they can’t keep the grades where they need to be?

  6. Does Section 504 apply only during school hours or does it apply to the school building/grounds anytime it is open? I have been told my daughter cannot have access to a sign language interpreter before school hours because of the contracted start times with interpreters and teachers and because it is time period that is “unsupervised” by teachers. I would argue that all students are unsupervised and all have communication access because they are not deaf and that my daughter should have the same communication access as her peers during unsupervised times as well, thus the provision of a sign language interpreter. I’m confident in my ability to advocate under IDEA, but I want to bring in ADA and 504 as well.

  7. Would this cover a child with documented astma not being allowed to run for student council because of absences? Most of which had medical documentation linked to his astma.

  8. Can you explain what might happen in the following situation a little bit to me?
    Say a 9th grade student has autism, and they have been struggling in school. (The student received a 2.3 GPA and 2 F’s) As a result of these grades the student has been deemed ineligible. Do the parents have a case against the school district/ Could they get the IEP changed so that if they were academically ineligible they could still play?

    • Thank you for your question. It is certainly worthwhile to consider whether or not the student’s special education program is inadequate and whether that inadequacy contributed to the eventual consequence of being deemed ineligible for athletics. This would be a very fact-specific inquiry, so we would encourage you to call our office and complete an intake if you are interested in exploring the situation further.

  9. Thank you for having this site. Our son is a 9th grade basketball player. He is on a 504 plan…he has just been told he is ineligible because he has a 1.96 GPA and the everyone has to have a 2.0 GPA. He does not have any “F’s”. He is being held to the same standards as all the other kids.

    Any help is appreciated….. Thanks!!

  10. My grandson has muscular dystrophy and has a one on one aide while at school. He participates in football and basketball as a team manager. He goes to every practice and participates in all activities with the team. He wants to ride the bus with the rest of the team to away events. The coaches and other players also want him to ride but the superintendent is saying that it is a liability to have him ride the bus. The reason he has a one on one aide while at school is because he needs assistance on the elevator, carrying his backpack and with some writing and restroom assistance. Not sure where to go from here or who to contact after the school.

    Any help would be appreciated.

    • Thank you for your comment. From what you wrote, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”) may both be implicated in this situation. Please feel free to call our office at 617-227-7031 to discuss possible next steps.

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