When he was an infant, Ray Petty contracted polio in the early 1950s. The disease, which affected thousands of other American children, robbed him of much of his ability to use his legs.
Looking back at his childhood growing up in Texas, he said it also robbed him of the chance to participate in many school activities.
"After elementary school, that pretty much just knocked me out of being in gym class and keeping up, running up and down gym courts," Petty said.
Now living in Lawrence, Petty is president of Kansas Accessible Sports, a group that promotes recreation and fitness opportunities for people with mobility impairments. And on Friday, he was thrilled with an announcement from the U.S. Department of Education that school districts must provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular athletics.
"Kids sitting on the sidelines keeping score books or being in the band, and never having the chance to participate in competitive sports, or team sports in particular, in my view really miss out on a lot of socialization," Petty said.
The new federal guidelines were issued by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. They are based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which prohibits any employer or organization that receives any amount of federal funding from excluding or denying people with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services.
"I think it's a great ruling and it will benefit a lot of young people," said Bob Mikesic, advocacy coordinator for Independence Inc., a Lawrence-based disability rights organization. "Extracurricular activities of various kinds, especially sports and physical education, it really has a positive impact on people's lives."
The guidelines do not require schools to include students with disabilities in selective or competitive sports, but they do prohibit schools from denying those students the chance to compete and to make reasonable accommodations for them.
For example, they suggest that if a deaf student is talented enough to compete in track, but cannot hear a starting gun, the school should provide a light signal to start a race. And in swimming, the guidelines suggest lifting the rule that a swimmer touch the edge of the pool with both hands at the end of a race if there is a one-armed swimmer who is otherwise capable of competing.
However, if schools are unable or unwilling to offer accommodations, the federal agency says they must offer a parallel program just for students with disabilities.
Lawrence school superintendent Rick Doll said he believes local schools already comply with the rules. He noted, for example, that all individualized education plans, or IEP's, for special education students include a statement saying the student, "will have the same opportunities to participate with children without disabilities in extracurricular and other nonacademic activities, unless otherwise noted."
In addition, he said schools work with the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department to help student take part in other community activities.
"I do agree that extracurricular activities are extremely important for all kids, with or without disabilities," Doll said. "And so as much as possible, making those activities accessible to kids with disabilities is a noble goal."
Gary Musselman, executive director of the Kansas State High School Activities Association, was unavailable for comment Friday. But in an email, he referred to a statement from the National Federation of State High School Associations that expressed "full support" for the new guidelines.
Although it wasn't immediately clear how far the guidelines would extend to college and university sports programs, Jim Marchiony, spokesman for Kansas Athletics, said he believes Kansas University already is in full compliance.
"Kansas Athletics strongly believes in this philosophy and has practiced it," Marchiony said. "We had a deaf woman on our soccer team as recently as two or three years ago, and we provided sign language interpreters. This is a philosophy that we not only believe in, but we practice it."