Athlete, 16, seeks a court order

Howard teen who uses wheelchair wants to be in same races as Atholton teammates

March 15, 2006|By TYRONE RICHARDSON | TYRONE RICHARDSON,SUN REPORTER

A Howard County high school track star who competes in a wheelchair and who won two medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens is seeking a federal court order that would let her take part in the same races as her fellow students.

Tatyana McFadden, 16 and a sophomore at Atholton High School in Columbia, is allowed to compete in her high school track team's practices, but the school system requires her to participate in separate races during official events - alone in most cases.

"You can't exclude people based on their disabilities," said Lauren Young, director of litigation for the Maryland Disabilities Law Center, the nonprofit group that filed a lawsuit Friday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on McFadden's behalf. "Students with disabilities must be offered the same access as students without."

McFadden's mother, Deborah McFadden, described her daughter's discontent with the current restriction and said the teenager feels as if she is not competing and is not a true part of the team.

"She's embarrassed, and it's humiliating to be competing alone," said Deborah McFadden. "Everybody has to stop and wait for her to [go] around the track."

She said that while her daughter would be timed separately from the other athletes, the teen wants to participate at the same time. When the teenager was asked why she wanted to compete with her teammates, she said: "It's not about winning or losing, it's about being a part" of the team.

The suit contends that the school system is violating the federal Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits exclusion of those with disabilities from programs and activities that receive federal funds.

The advocacy group said the law requires that students with disabilities be offered equal opportunities to participate in interscholastic athletics and to be with students without disabilities as much as possible. Separate athletic programs are acceptable only if necessary to protect student safety, the center said.

Mark Blom, the Howard school system's general counsel, said the system "completely denies any allegation that we have violated federal law - or any law, in fact. We have extended ourselves in many significant ways to accommodate Tatyana, and we're pleased to do that," Blom said.

He called the lawsuit "a case about a parent trying to trail-blaze, and people are entitled to do that, but she has no law or authority to support her position."

Young, however, said the school system's restriction runs counter to the stated goals of high school sports, including socialization, learning teamwork, building interpersonal relations and enthusiasm for sports and exercise.

"Kids with disabilities are no different," Young said. "They just want to be on the track and on the bus with the teammates. It's not about winning, it's about participating."

McFadden, born paralyzed from the waist down, has competed successfully in such events for disabled athletes as shot put, discus and javelin, and wheelchair racing. At the Athens games, she won the silver in the 100-meter wheelchair race and the bronze in the 200-meter race.

tyrone.richardson@baltsun.com

Sun reporter John-John Williams IV and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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