Athletics and Special Education: More Than APE?
Physical education plays an important role in every child’s development. Participation in school wide physical education increases physical and social growth for all students – including those living with special needs. Students not only benefit from the physical effects of physical education, but can achieve higher self-esteem, understanding of teamwork, sensory relief and better overall mental health.
Unfortunately, achieving inclusive education within physical education and athletic programs is not always successful despite federal laws protecting all students.
Often, students living with disabilities are afforded only the opportunity to participate in an adaptive physical education class (APE) where specialized and modified instruction is provided for physical activities. Often a student’s disability does not impede their ability to participate in group athletics or sports (general education PE or school teams), yet a school may be hesitant to offer more to the student than APE alone.
Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act provides that a school district is required to provide all qualified students with a disability an opportunity to benefit from the school district’s program equal to that of students without disabilities. School athletic programs are considered “district programs” and must follow these same guidelines.
While students may not make a team sport because they lack a required level of skill or ability (for competitive sports), school districts are not allowed to exclude students with disabilities with the requisite skill to compete but needing assistance (for instance, a hearing impairment – the student can compete at the level of competition, but may need an interpreter to assist them with communication).