By: Maria E. Fischer Esq. and S. Paul Prior Esq.

This article was authored as part of a Special Olympics New Jersey informational bulletin on inclusive sports and SONJ’s Play Unified School Partnership.

On June 19, 2014, Governor Christie signed legislation regarding the inclusion of students with disabilities in athletic activities (N.J.S.A. 18A:11-3.5 et seq.). This historic law is effective in the 2015-2016 school year.

1) Why is the new sports law important?

This law requires school districts ensure students with disabilities have equal access and opportunities to participate in athletics, as well as, provide opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in existing adaptive and Special Olympics Unified Sports® programs. It applies to athletic programs including clubs, intramural, and interscholastic athletic activities.

2) What is required of school districts under the new sports law?

School districts must make reasonable efforts to provide a student with a disability the opportunity to participate in existing adaptive or Special Olympics Unified Sports®. Therefore, school districts must be prepared to provide inclusive sports options for students with disabilities as early as July 1, 2015.

3) How does this law differ from requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”)?

1. Provide equal opportunities to participate in extracurricular and nonacademic activities 1. ENSURE equal access and opportunity to participate in athletic activities
2. NO requirement to provide nonacademic services and extracurricular activities to students with disabilities 2. District must make reasonable efforts to provide opportunities to participate in existing adaptive and Special Olympics Unified Sports®
3. Requires an IEP team determination of the extent a student shall not participate 3. Student must be allowed to try out for and if selected participate in athletic programs
4. Must include supplemental aids and services students need to participate 4. Same
5. Unclear the extent to which reasonable modifications must be provided 5. MUST make reasonable modifications as long as the modification does not create a health or safety risk or fundamentally alter the game
6. Students with disabilities do not have a right to be on a competitive team 6. Same
7. District does not have to create separate activities for students with disabilities 7. District must provide an opportunity to participate in existing adaptive or Special Olympics Unified Sports®

4) Is a student entitled to play on a competitive team?

No, a student with a disability is not entitled to play on a school’s competitive team. However, this legislation ensures a student with a disability must be given an opportunity to try out for and if selected, participate on a competitive team. If not selected, districts must provide students with an alternative adaptive or Special Olympics Unified Sports® option.

5) Is a district required to provide modifications and accommodations to a student?

Yes, each school district must ensure the provision of reasonable modifications or services necessary to give a student with a disability an equal opportunity to participate in athletic activities.

6) Are there exceptions which limit a student’s opportunity to participate in athletic activities?

Yes, if inclusion of a student with disabilities presents an objective health or safety risk to the student or to others; or fundamentally alters the athletic activity. In either of these instances, the student may not be able to participate in the activity, but the District must provide the alternatives mentioned above.

7) Who decides if an objective health or safety risk exists or if there is a fundamental alteration to the game?

This is not specifically addressed in the law. Based on other cases it seems clear, it is not the coach or athletic director alone. It is likely that this will be an IEP team decision. Remember, Athletic Directors and or coaches can be included as IEP team members.

8) If a student attends an out-of-district school program, what are his rights under the new law?

A student in an out-of-district school program has the right to participate in the athletic programs of the sending school district. There is, however, no requirement for the out-of-district school to create and provide athletic programs.

Click here to download a PDF of this article, The PDF includes a summary of Special Olympics New Jersey’s Play Unified School Partnership.

Published on Mar 25th, 2015. © Copyright 2015 Hinkle, Fingles & Prior, P.C., Attorneys at Law. All rights reserved.
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