School Sports For Disabled Students- The Right To Play


Last Updated on February 12, 2024 by Michelle Ball

By Michelle Ball, Sacramento California Expulsion, Special Education, sports/CIF, College, Education and School Attorney/Lawyer for Students since 1995

If a public school student suffers from disabilities, and wants to participate in sports or extracurricular activities, issues may arise if school staff don’t know what to do or are lackadaisical in helping the student. What are the student’s general rights with regard to playing and receiving access and accommodations during sports?

Student disabilities may prevent from sports
Students may be skilled in sports, but not have equal access to teams due to their disabilities

Equal Access to Student Extracurricular Activities, Clubs and Sports

Disabled students don’t automatically get onto sports teams (basketball, football, track etc.) or into extracurricular groups, such as the Spanish Club, if they cannot meet the basic entrance/membership requirements with accommodations, modifications, aids or services (within certain parameters).

This means that if a student wants to join the track team, and there are minimum requirements, the student must meet those basic requirements. In other words, just being disabled does not entitle a student to be on a team, unless its a team or group which any student can get on with no prerequisites.

Usually, as sports teams have minimal skill requirements, the disabled student must meet these requirements, but they can get help meeting them in some cases.

Ensuring Equal Access to Student Extracurriculars

Qualified disabled students are entitled to certain things to ensure equal access, including the following, per the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) “Dear Colleague” January 25, 2013 pages 3-4.

  1. If the student wants to participate in an extracurricular activity, such as school sports, they cannot be denied the right to join that group, based on their disability.
  2. A disabled student should have an equal opportunity to participate in that sport or extracurricular activity.
  3. Disabled students should not be given a lesser extracurricular activity or sport compared to other students.
  4. Segregating disabled students for extracurricular activities such as sports, should not occur unless this is necessary to provide that student with equal services
  5. Students cannot be more limited in their participation in and enjoyment of an activity due to their disability.

Accommodations in Sports

Student athletes are entitled to reasonable accommodations in sports, unless the accommodation would cause a fundamental alteration of the activity or would constitute an undue burden.

Disabled students may need sports for FAPE
Students must receive FAPE and if supports or accommodations are needed, the IEP or 504 teams can help

Sports Participation as FAPE

Disabled students access to sports or extracurricular activities may be addressed by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 teams. If parents and the IEP/504 team believe that participation by the student in a sport may be required to provide a student a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), they may be required to take actions to ensure the student’s participation.

In the Office for Civil Rights “Letter to Matthews” issued April 3, 2015, OCR states on page 2:

“In some instances, IEP or Section 504 teams may determine that a student’s participation in an extracurricular or nonacademic activity is required as a necessary component of the student’s FAPE. If so, a school district must develop and deliver appropriate related aids and services through the IEP or Section 504 team process to enable the student to successfully participate in the activity.”

If a student wants to participate in sports or extracurricular activities and a parent believes support may may be needed, this should be discussed with the student’s IEP or 504 team as early as possible.

Student athletes should not be discriminated against
Alterations may have to be made for disabled students, unless they fundamentally alter the sport or create an undue burden

Discrimination On the Team

Discrimination issues can arise in many aspects of student sports.

For example, what if a coach begrudgingly allows a disabled student athlete on a team, but will not give the student any play time, despite the student having good skill at practices? This could constitute discrimination based on disability.

The reason this may be discriminatory, is that although a student athlete is not entitled to play time, any denial cannot have a discriminatory basis.

Other examples of student disability discrimination could be found in denial of a deaf wrestler’s interpreter near the wrestler, not allowing a student athlete with the required skill onto a sports team only because her special education causes her to be unable to meet a “70% school attendance rule,” or forcing a student athlete with a physical disfigurement to meet a rule the student physically cannot and not offering a reasonable substitute for the student which does not fundamentally alter the nature of the competition or cause undue burden.

Student attorney Michelle Ball helps with elementary, middle, high school and college sports, access, special education, 504, CIF (California Interscholastic Federation), and other important student legal problems. As an education lawyer for students, Michelle helps throughout California, including in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, Bakersfield, Fresno, Meadow Vista and many other California cities.