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Florida Disability and Athletics Groups Praise Federal Rule On Equal Access To School Sports

The U.S. Department of Education has ruled public schools must include students with disabilities in sports programs or provide equal alternatives.

The ruling is similar to the Department's Title IX rule, which expanded equal opportunities for women in public school athletics. Disability advocates like Disability Rights Florida, call USDOE's ruling a step in the right direction for children with disabilities.

"It represents equal access to the educational system and the benefits that come with participating in sports, similar to what they did 40 years ago with the ordering that women be treated equally in education systems with respect to sports. That's why we support it," said Bob Whitney, Executive Director of Disability Rights Florida.

Some states already offer sports programs for disabled students. Tommy Storms, with the American Association of adaptive sports programs, said those programs have been a success.

"We're seeing our kids are performing better academically. They're more confident, there are less issues with depression, feeling like an outsider at school," she said.

Meanwhile, the Florida High School Athletics Association has issued its own response to the U.S. Department of Education's ruling.

“Florida has been ahead of the curve for several years, and we fully embrace the steps suggested by the federal government. In the past few years we have added some adaptive sports to the athletic activities offered at member schools, and we look forward to working with schools, districts and – most importantly – student-athletes with disabilities and their parents – to provide every reasonable opportunity for them to experience the joy and benefits of athletic competition," said Rodger Dearing, Executive Director of the FHSAA in a statement.

"Wherever and whenever possible, we want every student to have the opportunity to be a part of the team, because providing access to athletic programs for students with disabilities certainly adds value to their overall educational experience. If this new guidance helps just one more student become a student-athlete, it will be worth the effort."

Federal Guidelines posted at the U.S. Department of Education's website provides examples of the types of changes schools may be required to make.  Those examples include allowing a visual cue alongside a starter pistol so a student with a hearing impairment can compete in track, or waiving rules requiring  a “two-hand touch” finish in swim events to accommodate a one-armed swimmer.