Department of Education rolls back the right to wheelchair basketball

Wheelchair Basketball
Ambiguous government writing sparked a debate over disabled students' "right" to sports.
Photo by Canadian Paralympic Committee

Two weeks ago I kicked up some dust when I wrote that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights had apparently created a right to wheelchair basketball via its new guidance about athletics and students with disabilities. Nor was I the only one to read it that way—the disability rights community saw it as a “landmark moment” too, akin to the passage of Title IX.

Not so fast, says the Department in a new Education Week article:

Seth M. Galanter, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, said that the guidance neither breaks new ground nor mandates new policy for the states that did not previously exist. During an interview, he pointed to a footnote in the guidance that says it is not adding requirements to applicable law.
Mr. Galanter also said that while the bulk of the guidance document offers examples of where the civil rights office would or would not find violations, the portion that talks about offering different or separate activities does not prescribe any penalties.
"The guidance does not say that there is a right to separate or parallel sports programs," Mr. Galanter said. Instead, the guidance urges—but does not require—that when inclusion is not possible, school districts find other ways to give students with disabilities the opportunity to take part in extracurricular athletics, he said.

Mr. Galanter added: "Reading one piece in isolation is not how we intended the document to be read."

Maybe it isn’t so crazy, after all, that the Common Core asks students to learn how to read government documents. It’s clearly an intellectually challenging task! (One aspect: Deciphering the meaning of “should.”)

Mr. Galanter, rather than imploring your intended audience not to “read one piece” of guidance “in isolation,” may I suggest that you rewrite the guidance so as to remove any ambiguity? Believe me, I made my share of mistakeswhen I was at the Department of Education. It’s OK to admit it, fix it, and move on.

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