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By Tracy Connor, Sr. Staff Writer, NBC News
The feds are ordering schools across the country to make "reasonable" changes to sports programs so that disabled students can play - or else create separate teams for them.
The new guidance from the Education Department issued Friday was hailed by advocates for the disabled but denounced by a conservative think-tank that said it could cost big bucks for cash-strapped schools.
"We think it's huge and historic. In my opinion it could have the same effect, if properly implemented, as Title IX did for women," said Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA.
Title IX required schools to offer girls and boys the same athletic opportunities and resulted in a huge uptick in female participation in school sports after it took effect 40 years ago.
The new order from the Education Department says athletics is also a civil right for the disabled and schools that don't protect it could lose federal funding.
Under the latest rules, schools must tweak traditional programs to give qualified disabled students a shot at playing as long as they can do it without fundamentally changing the sport or giving anyone an advantage.
For instance, a visual aid instead of a starter pistol for the deaf runner would be easy to implement, while adding a fifth base to a baseball field to shorten running distances would be considered too big a change.
If alterations to a traditional team aren't feasible, schools must create a sports program that is open to disabled students, the order says. If there aren't enough students, schools should seek to create district-wide, regional or mixed-gender programs.
That part of the directive could be a huge financial burden, said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning educational research nonprofit.
"I'm sympathetic to the idea that kids with disabilities should be able to play sports, but this is an incredible example of executive overreach and a huge unfunded mandate," Petrilli said.
"It's not clear how far schools have to go. Is wheelchair basketball enough or do they need to have wheelchair tennis and other sports, too?"
Bauer said such concerns are off-base, that schools will not be asked to have a disabled counterpart for every sport.
"It's not going to be across the board," he said. "Maybe football is not the sport that is going to be integrated."
The letter from the feds gives some examples of ways schools can be creative but it does not spell out everything.
Casey Followay, 15, of Wooster, Ohio, who races in a wheelchair alone on his track team, hopes the policy will allow him to go up against runners. "It's going to give me the chance to compete against kids at my level," he told the Associated Press.
Lindsay Jones of the Council for Exceptional Children said that since disabilities are so individualized, the response to them needs to be, as well.
"I do thing you're going to see some case-by-case lawsuits," she said.
Ron Ingram, a spokesman for the Alabama High School Athletic Association, said he did not expect enormous changes at the school level in his state.
"We already have gone to great lengths to include students with disabilities in a way that it is not detrimental to the fundamental concept of the contest," he said, pointing to a wrestler with no legs who racked up a 36-14 record in his senior year competing on a traditional team.
He said a wheelchair division at the state track-and-field championships has been a "disappointment," with not much interest. "A majority of our special-needs students would prefer to compete in the Special Olympics," he said.
"I think, based on what I've read so far, the biggest impact will just remind us all that we do need to go to great lengths to make sure all our students athletes are not discriminated against," Ingram said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.