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GAO Study Finds More Guidance Could Improve Opportunities in Physical Education and Athletics for Students with Disabilities

Washington, DC June 24, 2010

Identifying an important need to expand physical activity and athletic opportunities for individuals with disabilities in our educational institutions, the Alliance in Support of Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities works to advance sports opportunities for students with disabilities. The Alliance, led by the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University (SIS), in partnership with American Association of Adapted Sports Programs (AAASP), the Inclusive Fitness Coalition (IFC), and Special Olympics (SO), is comprised of over 100 organizations representing a cross sector of the disability rights, sport, health and fitness, and civil rights community.

Recognizing the limited information that existed about the state of physical activity opportunities for individuals with disabilities in the school setting, the Alliance worked in partnership with members of Congress, including Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), to request a GAO study to examine this issue in greater detail.

The results released yesterday confirm the need for continued action and advocacy on behalf of students with disabilities. Specifically, the report noted that students with disabilities participate in athletics at consistently lower rates than students without disabilities. Beverly Vaughn, Co-founder/Executive Director of the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs (AAASP) said, “The results of this study show that we still have a long way to go in providing athletic equity in this country for students with physical disabilities. These students want to compete in ports just as their friends and siblings do, providing anything less than what other children receive on a regular basis is not an option.”

The findings recognized the positive benefits sports participation bring to students with disabilities including health, social well being, and improved self esteem. Special Olympics Chairman and CEO Timothy Shriver confirmed, “Years of research and anecdotes demonstrate the desperate need for opportunities for people with disabilities and the dramatic impact experienced through participation in sport. The vast majority of Special Olympics athletes benefit from increased self esteem, self confidence, social relationships at work/school, and physical abilities.”

On the other hand, the lack of opportunity to participate in physical education and athletics has been linked to a higher prevalence of obesity and obesity-related secondary conditions in youth with disabilities compared to youth without disabilities. James Rimmer, Co-Chair of the Inclusive Fitness Coalition and Director of the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability (NCPAD) said, “An effective national strategy to lower overweight/obesity among youth with disabilities and reduce the potential risk of obesity-related secondary conditions in adulthood must focus on prevention strategies that begin early in life, such as including youth with disabilities in physical education and athletic opportunities, so that healthy lifestyle habits are established during this important developmental period.”

Despite these benefits, the GAO report confirmed that students with disabilities are not receiving the same amount of physical activity and athletic opportunities as students without disabilities. To help close this gap, the GAO called on the Department of Education to provide resources to assist states and schools in serving students with disabilities in physical activity settings and to produce guidance to clarify schools’ responsibilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to provide athletic opportunities for students with disabilities.

“The Alliance applauds the GAO’s leadership in conducting this report and endorses their recommendations,” said Eli Wolff of the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University. “We will continue to work diligently to advance policies that will ensure that students with disabilities are provided opportunities to participate in and receive benefits from school-based athletic programs.”

You can download a complete copy of the report at:  Please see the attached Addendum A for statements from supporting members of Congress.

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