Students with disabilities must be given opportunities to play on a traditional sports team or have their own leagues, according to a directive from the U.S. Department of Education.
Schools nationwide need to make “reasonable modifications” to accommodate them.
“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,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan says in a statement.
The federal order is similar to Title IX expansion of athletic opportunities for girls and women four decades ago.
The question today is, who will pay for changes?
“This is a landmark moment for students with disabilities. This will do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women,” says Terri Lakowski, who for a decade led a coalition pushing for the changes. “This is a huge victory.”
Lakowski says there are many benefits for disabled students who play in sports.
“We know that students with disabilities have higher rates of obesity than students without disabilities so from a health perspective this is critical,” Lakowski says. “Participation in sports and physical fitness boosts self-esteem, improves educational outcomes and reduces drop-out rates.”
Lisa Followay says sports has changed her disabled son’s life. Emotionally and socially he went from being depressed to becoming a “very happy young man” who runs track and plays hockey.
In the Puget Sound area, some schools are already extending athletic opportunities to disabled students.
A Special Olympics program called Unified Sports combines equal numbers of athletes with and without disabilities on sports teams for training and competition.
Currently the programs offered here are basketball and soccer.
Youth and school district staff from across Washington State will participate in the first Special Olympics Washington Project UNIFY convention Saturday in Edmonds.
By LINDA THOMAS
CBS News contributed to this report