Fighting for the right to race with her team

March 16, 2006|By JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV | JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV,SUN REPORTER

THAT POLICY — Tatyana McFadden has dusted competitors nationally and won medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece. But the star wheelchair athlete can't compete alongside her Columbia high school teammates - Howard County school policy effectively requires her to take the track alone.

That policy - the subject of a federal lawsuit by the Atholton High School sophomore - appears to fly in the face of accommodations made by some school systems around the country that have come up with ways to let disabled and able-bodied athletes compete in the same events.

In Oregon, wheelchair athletes compete in the same heats as athletes with no disabilities, without earning official scores. In Louisiana, wheelchair athletes take the track separately but their scores count toward overall team points, an approach Howard County says it will take in wheelchair events this year.

Advocates for the disabled say schools in Iowa, New Jersey, Minnesota and Washington allow wheelchair athletes to compete alongside able-bodied athletes in some events.

"I think it is more common than we know," said Kevin Hansen, executive director of World Wheelchair Sports, a nonprofit group that promotes the integration of wheelchair athletes into high school and other athletic programs. "A lot of old football [and] wrestling coaches don't think it is proper. They are backward in their thinking."

For McFadden, 16, who was born with spina bifida, the lawsuit is about more than her right to share the track with teammates and competitors.

"This not only opens the door for me, it opens the doors for a couple of elementary kids," McFadden said, referring to her sister Hannah, 10, who has a prosthetic leg.

Not everyone agrees that such mixed events are a good idea.

Susan Oglesby, director of BlazeSports Georgia, a program of the U.S. Disabled Athletes Fund that promotes community sports, clinics and competitions for disabled athletes, opposes letting wheelchair and able-bodied athletes compete simultaneously.

"If it's not the same competition, they shouldn't be on the track at the same time," Oglesby said. "I do believe that the high schools need to offer more opportunities, meaning more distances, for wheelchairs, and we need more training for the coaches because there are certifications available."

Mark Blom, the Howard school system's general counsel, says McFadden is asking the system to create an athletic event that does not exist anywhere else.

"Wheelchair racing involves athletes using their upper body, arms, shoulders and no use of the legs," said Blom. "We feel it is material alteration of the sport to have a wheelchair athlete in a running event."

He noted that the county has added five wheelchair events - 100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters, shot-put and discus - to overall team scoring when track and field meets get under way Tuesday.

The dispute - with its echoes of the battle over workplace accommodation for the disabled and the inclusion of special education students in classrooms - centers on McFadden's complaint that the school system is not complying with the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Section 504 is essentially the equivalent of Title IX for people with disabilities, as it prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in federally funded programs and activities, said Marc Charmatz, an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

"The whole tenor of this is to ensure that disabled athletes have the same opportunities to participate in programs and activities as nondisabled athletes to the maximum extent appropriate," said Charmatz, who teaches a clinic on civil rights of people with disabilities.

Charmatz said he sees no reason for "separate but equal" programs for disabled athletes.

"Why can't a person participate equally?" Charmatz asked. "I think that participation is so valuable to a person with a disability. It's difficult to come up with a reason why someone shouldn't be able to have a chance."

Ann Cody, chairwoman of the International Paralympics Committee's Women in Sports panel, said a common response by officials to situations such as McFadden's is that the other athletes could be at risk of injury if a wheelchair athlete races alongside them.

That's an example of "attitudinal barriers that are kind of masked by policy," said Cody, a three-time track and field Paralympian. "It's just another instance of a younger person with a disability being excluded from opportunities that are afforded to everybody else around her. People ought to be able to look at this constructively and say, `How can we make this work?'"

McFadden, who took home wheelchair-event medals at the 2004 Paralympics, said she loves competition and the camaraderie of practicing and competing with teammates. She was embarrassed when Howard County officials told her she could race only against other wheelchair athletes - effectively by herself.

"I wanted to meet new people," McFadden said. "I didn't like being separated."

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