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.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s