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NFHS and Supporting Students with Physical Disabilities and their Pursuit of Sport

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) is the national leadership organization for high school sports and fine arts activities. The NFHS serves as the national authority on interscholastic activity programs, producing resources for administrators, coaches and officials, and serves as a national source for interscholastic coaches training. NFHS membership includes 51-member state associations that are divided into eight different sections, reaching more than 19,000 high schools and 12 million participants in high school activity programs including more than 7.8 million in high school sports.

On Jan. 25, 2013, the Office for Civil Rights released a “Dear Colleague” letter clarifying the existing obligations of school districts to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular athletics. The NFHS Inclusion Task Force was established in response to the letter and held its first meeting in October 2013.  Representatives from state associations, various inclusion-based organizations, the National Interscholastic Administrators Association (NIAAA) and the NFHS were in attendance. The purpose of the meeting was to bring stakeholders together and develop a comprehensive strategy to provide resources for the NFHS membership.

A number of projects and initiatives were implemented by the NFHS office during the next few years, including:

  • Identifying and defining three types of inclusion activities:

·       Integrated – Inclusion of students with disabilities into existing traditional activities.

·       Adapted – Addition of a program offering specifically for students with a physical disability.

·       Unified – Addition of a program offering for students with intellectual disability partnered with students with no disability.

  • Conducting annual surveys of state offerings for students with disabilities – Here are the results from NFHS’s annual participation survey, or for detailed findings for your particular state, you can reach out directly to the NFHS office.
  • Creating an assessment/accommodation plan for state associations (NFHS Assessment Chart) – this guide was prepared by the NFHS Inclusion of Students with Disabilities Task Force to assist state associations in working with schools as they provide accommodations for students with disabilities. When requesting a possible accommodation, coaches should work with their school and the state association as early as possible in the sport season. Contest officials shall defer decisions on rule accommodations to the respective state association. This information serves as a guide. Each state association may develop its own process. This information is included in rules interpretation meeting power point presentations for many sports.
  • Developing best practice resources in collaboration with U.S. Paralympics:

·         Best Practices for Disability Swimming and Diving

·         Best Practices for Disability Track and Field

Five years after the “Dear Colleague” letter was introduced, the growth of students with a disability participating in high school athletics has nearly doubled, per the NFHS annual participation survey. Sport offerings have more than doubled, and today over 30 state associations offer opportunities to students with disabilities.

The NFHS strives to create a culture of inclusion for all students by encouraging a school/community culture of engagement, raising the level of awareness, and addressing policies and practices. The NFHS Inclusion and Diversity Team serves as a conduit and repository for best practices associated with student participation in athletics and activities for our member state associations. The NFHS does not sponsor any one program but provides a dedicated site to resources and information to raise the awareness about inclusion opportunities. The NFHS website resource page offers original content, videos, media releases, best practices and strategies for state association administrators. The NFHS Diversity and Inclusion Team also interacts with associations through outreach, education, and professional development.

Best practices for inclusion are designed to assist schools with creating sustainable opportunities for students with physical disabilities to take part in interscholastic sports in an equitable manner as their peers without disabilities. Below are some logistics to consider when assisting a student with a physical disability who wishes to pursue a sport at school:

  • Awareness & Education – Transparent communication and building positive relationships with all parties working with the student are key so that the student has a positive sport experience. Build a support team for the student that may consist of coaches, athletic director, state association leadership, school administrators and parents. Make sure all parties are aware of the expectations outlined in the “Dear Colleague” letter.
  • Identifying Athletes – Many students with disabilities do not participate in adapted physical education or in special education classes, which may make it more difficult to identify them. It may be helpful for program leadership to develop relationships with coaches and athletic directors to start creating opportunities for students.
  • Equipment – Some sports may require adapted sport equipment. In a number of instances, specialized equipment may not be needed at all. Work with local adaptive sport programs to evaluate equipment options for possible equipment loan programs during the sport season or grant opportunities to acquire necessary equipment. Adaptive Equipment Resources
  • Funding – Because students from special education and general education take part in adapted sports, if needed, funding allocations can come from both the special education and athletic department budgets. Special Education may help fund the costs associated with transportation, and/or adapted sport equipment.
  • Coaching – Provide coaches with ongoing educational opportunities. NFHS resources listed below provide insightful information for coaches working with students with physical disabilities. Offer a sport clinic to the coaching staff and bring in experts to assist with disability and equipment knowledge. First and foremost, coaches should rely on the student to let them know what works best for them.
  • Risk Minimization – School personnel, including adapted sports coordinators and coaches working with student athletes participating in high school sport, must be knowledgeable about the types of disabilities the students have, as well as any precautions associated with the disability. Similar to student athletes without a disability, students with a disability may be required to provide results from an annual physical from a physician.
  • Transportation – School systems may need to develop transportation plans for their athletes based on the unique needs of the students participating. To make sure the entire competitive and team experience remains inclusive, school personnel and coaches will need to secure school transportation options so that the students with disabilities can travel to competitions with their teammates.
  • Partnerships – Outreach with other sport organizations can be helpful. This includes National Governing Bodies for respective sports, special education and special services staff at the state and local level, and colleagues in state associations. Reach out to other schools in the area that have already paved the way for their students with disabilities.
  • Create Opportunities for Participation – The reason the programs are inclusive is because children with physical disabilities are part of their high school team, competing against other high school teams. All students have the right to participate in sport and experience the excitement and camaraderie of being part of a team.

Additional Resources: NFHS hopes you find the following resources helpful when working with a student as they discover the power of sport and become a part of a team:

  1. NFHS Inclusion of Students with Disabilities
  2. NFHS Learn – provides information on the following topics:
  • General Health and Safety Courses focusing on health, safety, and risk minimization
  • Fundamentals of Coaching
  • Coaching Unified Sports
  • Coaching Wheelchair Team Sports (coming soon)
  • Introduction of Coaching Paralympic Sports (coming soon)


For more information or questions, please contact Sandy Searcy, NFHS Director of Sports at or 317-822-5735

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