Practicality loses with decision on disabled girl

On High Schools

April 19, 2006|By MILTON KENT

Every day, each of us walks a tightrope between the theoretical and the practical, between what is possible in our lives and what is likely. As kids, the world is full of hopes and dreams, of Brooks Robinsons and ballerinas and everything this side of the moon.

Soon enough, though, the girl who hit a key three-pointer in the big game becomes a research chemist or CEO and the 1,000-yard rusher turns into a middle manager, or worse yet, a sportswriter. There's nothing wrong with any of those things, of course, but for most, they are realities upon waking from the dream, not the dream itself.

It's understandable, then, in a way, that U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis saw the dreams of Tatyana McFadden - the Atholton sophomore who won two medals in the Paralympics two years ago and wants to be a part of the school's track team - and sought to make them come true Monday.

Davis granted a preliminary injunction in a suit filed by the Maryland Disability Law Center on McFadden's behalf that will allow her to participate with the track team as early as today's meet at Long Reach.

After all, in theory, nothing should stand in the way of a kid getting her dream, and McFadden, who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, wants only to race with the team, and not alone, as she had been forced to do.

Davis' ruling, however, flies in the face of practicality, and has the potential to turn local high school athletics on its ear. By allowing McFadden to pursue her dream, Davis unwittingly has opened up a Pandora's box of problems for everyone outside her circle, because he failed to consider the theoretical.

Let's start with the obvious: What will McFadden's physical presence do to the events she participates in, the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,600-meter runs? Can the school system be held responsible if McFadden accidentally hurts a competitor?

McFadden's Atholton teammates say that she hasn't affected them during practice, but the lanes probably weren't full then either. In dual or multiple team meets, there are almost certain to be more runners, and thus more chance for contact, even if it is unintentional.

Her teammates also say that McFadden's speed is negated on short distances, but is a factor on longer runs. How fair is it to a middle distance runner who has to take two trips around the track on two legs in an 800-meter run, or four laps in a 1,600-meter run to have to race someone on wheels?

And what do any of the numbers produced by either McFadden or anyone she competes against mean juxtaposed against those in a meet conducted solely with able-bodied kids or solely with wheelchair athletes?

Of course, we could all say that numbers shouldn't matter in a situation like this, where we have the chance to make a good kid feel good. And that would be fine, except that, in this day and age, there are the feelings of other kids to take into consideration as well, kids who have aspirations of college scholarships or professional opportunities. Their feelings are no less important that Tatyana McFadden's are.

In the short term, Howard County officials have no choice, or at least not from a public relations standpoint, but to let McFadden participate today and for the rest of the school year.

For next year and beyond, however, Howard officials would do well to call their colleagues in Baltimore County and adopt their very successful Allied program, in which disabled and able-bodied students who don't play on a varsity or junior varsity team participate together in soccer, bowling and softball for the same awards and recognition that varsity athletes receive. That seems like the best way to ensure that the dreams of as many students as possible are fulfilled.

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