Student fights for ability to score

Lawyers debate right of disabled athletes to compete as equals

May 10, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

The ability of wheelchair athletes to earn points for their teams at track and field tournaments took center stage in federal court in Baltimore yesterday as lawyers debated whether the nation's disability rights laws require the state of Maryland tochange its rules.

Howard County athlete Tatyana McFadden filed suit in March, asking a federal judge for an immediate order to force the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association to allow the Atholton High School junior to score points for her team at either the regional or the state outdoor track and field meet this month.

"The struggle here is to figure out a way to include students so that they have an opportunity to compete," said Lauren Young, a Maryland Disability Law Center attorney who is representing McFadden.

She told U.S. District Court Judge Andre M. Davis that by not allowing McFadden to score points, state athletic officials are sending the message that "`you don't count for your team,' and that's not the message you want to send."

But Elliott L. Schoen of the Maryland attorney general's office countered that while the goal is admirable, the state high school athletic association is trying to fashion an equitable points system, since there are no national standards and only a patchwork of rules among a handful of states.

Schoen compared the state's position to its rule requiring that 40 percent of Maryland schools compete in an event for the individual athletes to be included among team point totals, pointing to diving as an example. He added that all of those rules, including the ones preventing wheelchair athletes from scoring team points, are "designed to protect competitive fairness."

"We're looking at one tiny piece," he said. "We have to look at the entire picture."

Davis said yesterday that his decision would be a difficult one because both McFadden and the state presented compelling arguments about fairness and inclusion for disabled students under the Americans with Disabilities Act . The judge asked for additional written information on related cases from the lawyers, saying he did not expect to reach a decision until tomorrow at the earliest.

McFadden, who was born with spina bifida, won two medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece. But her ability to compete at the state's highest levels was hampered, her attorneys said, by the MPSSAA's decision.

The state's ruling contrasts with a previous settlement with Howard County's public schools permitting McFadden to earn from one to six points in any event she's in - one for each wheelchair participant. It's a compromise because winners of events usually receive 10 points for their schools.

In an interview after yesterday's hearing, McFadden said that allowing her to earn a single team point for each event she intends to compete in - she expects to race in the 200- and 400-meter events this month - will mean she can be a full member of her team.

"I want to compete equally and fully by getting just a single point," she said. "It's like the full package. I train and compete. This is just the last part."

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