Illinois AG sues IHSA over disabled swimming, track Federal lawsuit filed on behalf of paralyzed 16-year-old student

By David Mercer

Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- The Illinois Attorney General's Office said it plans to sue the organization that oversees high school sports in the state to try to force it to allow disabled athletes to compete in all of its swimming and track and field events.

The federal lawsuit targets the Illinois High School Association on behalf of 16-year-old Mary Kate Callahan, a swimmer and track athlete from LaGrange who is paralyzed from the waist down due to a neurological disorder. The attorney general's office provided a copy of the suit, which it plans to file Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Chicago, to The Associated Press.

IHSA Director Marty Hickman said he was surprised, noting that an IHSA committee is exploring ways to better accommodate disabled athletes. He said the attorney general failed to provide clarification on what laws the organization was violating, but Attorney General Lisa Madigan disputes that claim.

Mary Kate attends Fenwick High School, a private Catholic school in suburban Oak Park that allows her and other disabled athletes to compete in local regular-season events. But the IHSA makes no provision to allow disabled athletes to compete in their own heats and events in post-season events such as its championships.

Swimming with her teammates for much of the season and then not being allowed to join them in the post-season is a letdown, Mary Kate said.

"We put in just as much effort as everyone else and we're all kind of cut off at a certain point in the season," she said.

"We want them to have the same opportunity to participate and compete at all meets and championships," added Alan Goldstein, an attorney for advocacy group Equip for Equality, which has joined the in the lawsuit.

Fenwick asked the IHSA last year to accommodate athletes like Mary Kate, and the request led to the creation of an IHSA committee that's expected to make recommendations next month, Hickman said.

The IHSA and lawyers from the attorney general's office have met. Hickman said the attorneys refused to offer guidance on laws that they said the association was violating, so the IHSA filed its own lawsuit in April against the attorney general's office asking a judge to find that it wasn't violating any laws. That lawsuit is pending in McLean County Circuit Court.

"We went, we sat down with them, we asked them to clarify what are the laws we're violating. They refused," he said.

Madigan disputes Hickman's version of events, saying attorneys from her office laid out a potential plan to phase in access for disabled athletes. And when the IHSA filed its lawsuit, "it became clear at that point they were not interested in a peaceful resolution," the attorney general said.

The IHSA is the governing body for all but a handful of Illinois' just more than 800 public and private high schools. Therefore, there is nowhere else for disabled athletes to turn to compete in high school sports, the attorney general's lawsuit argues.

Mary Kate contracted a neurological disorder called transverse myelitis as an infant. The spinal inflammation left her unable to walk and reliant on a wheelchair -- but she's found freedom in swimming pools. She started swimming competitively at age 6, using her arms and shoulders to move her through the water.

During regular meets, she swims alongside her teammates and competitors, slower but "like every other swimmer out there," she said. "I love swimming so much because you can swim so easily with the other swimmers that are able bodied."

She isn't awarded points for her results -- meaning her participation isn't part of her team's score -- and she can't swim in the post season. Goldstein argues that adding heats for disabled swimmers in championships wouldn't be any more difficult than creating different races for smaller schools or separating boys and girls into different races.

The IHSA holds events for some disabled athletes, including a wheelchair basketball tournament alongside the annual state championships. It also makes case-by-case accommodations when possible, such as a visually impaired golfer who has been allowed to use a spotter, Hickman said.

The IHSA committee is exploring how best to add events for more disabled athletes, he said.

"That's exactly what the committee is looking at," he said. "That's why it's perplexing to us to find ourselves in this kind of situation."

Several other states -- including Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota -- provide ways for disabled high school athletes to compete in state-level competitions, Goldstein said. His organization and the attorney general's office aren't willing to wait for the IHSA committee to make its recommendations because those ideas, even if acceptable, may take too long implement, he said.

"Our fear is there'll be nothing in place for Mary Kate's senior year in high school, which is next year," Goldstein said.

Published: Thu, May 17, 2012