At the NCAA Regional Rules Seminar in Atlanta, Chris Ruckdaschel of the NCAA’s Office of Inclusion and Leadership Development presented a session on the inclusion of student-athletes with disabilities. The session gave a broad overview of the NCAA’s efforts to include athletes with both education-impacting and physical disabilities. One of those efforts was the creation in 2012 of the NCAA Student-Athletes with Disabilities Subcommittee. That group has started exploring different ways to accommodate student-athletes with disabilities as well as other initiatives like data collection and the creation of a best practices document.
One very long-term initiative might be the addition of adapted sports as new NCAA sports. The committee has had only the earliest discussions about the topic and no formal plans are on the horizon. But it may one day become a requirement for institutions, which would be a catalyst for NCAA sponsorship.
Awareness of issues surrounding athletes with disabilities on college campuses has increased ever since the Office of Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague letter covering Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 can be thought of as a version of Title IX for individuals with physical disabilities. Individuals cannot be denied access to extracurricular activities at institutions receiving federal funding, including intercollegiate athletics. No individual has a right to a spot on a team, but everyone must have an equal opportunity to participate.
There are different ways to provide access. One way is through a reasonable accommodation. And according to the Dear Colleague letter, this is the preferred method:
A school district must, however, afford qualified students with disabilities an equal opportunity for participation in extracurricular athletics in an integrated manner to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of the student. This means that a school district must make reasonable modifications to its policies, practices, or procedures whenever such modifications are necessary to ensure equal opportunity, unless the school district can demonstrate that the requested modification would constitute a fundamental alteration of the nature of the extracurricular athletic activity.
Examples of modifications of sports include visual starting cues in track, one-hand touch in swimming, and constant touch wrestling. If those modifications are not enough or not possible without fundamentally altering the nature of the activity, the Dear Colleague letter says adapted sports programs may be necessary:
Students with disabilities who cannot participate in the school district’s existing extracurricular athletics program – even with reasonable modifications or aids and services – should still have an equal opportunity to receive the benefits of extracurricular athletics. When the interests and abilities of some students with disabilities cannot be as fully and effectively met by the school district’s existing extracurricular athletic program, the school district should create additional opportunities for those students with disabilities.
But OCR makes it clear that separate programs are a last resort:
As stated above, in providing or arranging for the provision of extracurricular athletics, a school district must ensure that a student with a disability participates with students without disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of that student with a disability. The provision of unnecessarily separate or different services is discriminatory. OCR thus encourages school districts to work with their community and athletic associations to develop broad opportunities to include students with disabilities in all extracurricular athletic activities. (Emphasis in original)
The session noted that the NCAA has a framework for adding adapted sports in place already: the emerging sports for women program. A similar model could used to determine which adapted sports are added by showing initial interest followed by a period where the sport would have to gain enough sponsorship to become an NCAA championship sport. These sports may also not be restricted to athletes with disabilities. The Dear Colleague letter recommends allied or unified teams when an adapted sport program is required but there are not enough qualified individuals to field a team. Allied or unified teams can also be a remedy to the potential for exclusion or separateness which OCR is trying to avoid in its recommendations and regulations.
It would be a number of years before the NCAA sanctions any adapted sports programs. The subcommittee is just getting off the ground after being formed two years ago. Any discussion of an emerging adapted sports process is very preliminary. And the Office of Civil Rights makes it clear that adapted sports programs are not the preferred solution. But with the NCAA getting out ahead of this issue and institutions more aware of their obligations to provide athletic programs for individuals with disabilities, we could one day see NCAA wheelchair basketball, sled hockey, or sitting volleyball.