Online Staff Report
CHICAGO — Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, with Equip for Equality and a 16-year-old high school student from La Grange, filed a joint lawsuit May 16 against the nonprofit Illinois High School Association (IHSA) to ensure student athletes with disabilities have full and equal opportunities to compete in interscholastic sports competitions throughout the state.
Madigan filed the lawsuit jointly with Equip for Equality, a federally mandated legal advocacy organization for people with disabilities in Illinois, and which represents Mary Kate Callahan, a 16-year-old junior at Fenwick Catholic High School in Oak Park.
Madigan said their mutual goal in bringing the action against the IHSA is to ensure all students with disabilities have the right to access every high school program and activity, including interscholastic sports competitions and state meets that feature separate heats to allow disabled athletes to compete.
“Every student athlete should have a chance to compete, including athletes with disabilities,” Madigan said. “Many other states give student athletes with disabilities the opportunity to compete. Students in Illinois should have the same chance.”
IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman issued the following statement: “For years, we have looked past disabilities and accommodated student-athletes — as people — in sports like gymnastics, golf, bowling, swimming, cross country and track and field. We’ve been actively engaged, listing to stakeholders, advocacy groups, parents, student athletes and others to determine how to enhance opportunities for our student athletes, all of our student athletes. We are confident that by working together we will help raise awareness about the abilities of people with disabilities and continue to be a leader.”
The joint lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, charges the nonprofit IHSA with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act, both of which require that no person be excluded from equal participation in any program or activity of a public entity because of their disability. The laws also prohibit discrimination based on a person’s disability.
Out of 811 high schools in Illinois, 793 public and private high schools are members of the nonprofit IHSA, the only organization in the state through which high schools can compete in interscholastic competitions. But under current IHSA practices, athletes with disabilities cannot compete with able-bodied athletes and cannot advance to state meets offered by the IHSA. Nationally, 15 states already provide an opportunity for student athletes with disabilities to take part in various sporting events.
“Students with disabilities should have the same opportunity to participate and compete in high school sports,” said Zena Naiditch, president and CEO of Equip for Equality. “This lawsuit seeks to bring Illinois in line with many other states, which already fully include student athletes with disabilities.”
The action arose out of complaints brought to Madigan’s office by Equip for Equality and Mary Kate Callahan, who uses a wheelchair because of lower limb paralysis from a condition called transverse myelitis. Though Mary Kate is a member of Fenwick’s swim team and Fenwick supports her participation in competitions, she is not allowed to compete with her team in IHSA meets at the sectional or state championship level.
“By not providing appropriate time standards for high school athletes with disabilities to qualify for state events, the IHSA is punishing disabled athletes,” Mary Kate Callahan said. “We work just as hard and want to represent our high schools at the highest level of competition, just like all athletes. The IHSA is preventing us from doing so.”
Madigan said the lawsuit was brought after attempts by her office to resolve the matter out of court were rebuffed by the IHSA. The nonprofit association filed suit against the Attorney General’s office in April. Madigan’s office had hoped to reach an agreement with the IHSA to allow athletes with disabilities to compete during the same championships as their able-bodied peers.
The lawsuit seeks to allow all students with disabilities to compete and earn points in interscholastic high school meets and to establish qualifying standards and rules for these students so they can compete at state meets, set records and earn medals like all other students. The lawsuit seeks to require IHSA to do so first for swimming and track and field sports for the 2012-2013 school year, and expand opportunities in other sports thereafter.
Public Interest Division Chief Paul Gaynor, Disability Rights Bureau Chief Nicki Bazer and Assistant Attorney General Judith Levitan are handling the case for Madigan’s office. Alan Goldstein, Amy Peterson and Lauren Lowe are handling the case for Equip for Equality.
Posted May 16, 2012