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Suit: Let disabled athletes go to IHSA state meet

Mary Kate Callahan disabled Fenwick High School student who wants compete swim meets. | Submitted photo

Mary Kate Callahan, a disabled Fenwick High School student who wants to compete in swim meets. | Submitted photo

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Updated: June 17, 2012 8:19AM



The Illinois High School Association girls state track and field meet will be held this weekend in Charleston, Ill., ­— and Fenwick’s Mary Kate Callahan won’t be taking part.

But a lawsuit to be filed Wednesday by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan in federal court aims to make it possible for student-athletes with disabilities, like Callahan who is paralyzed from the waist down, to compete in future IHSA state meets.

The suit asks for an injunction ordering the IHSA “to cease unlawful discrimination against athletes with disabilities” and to create more opportunities for athletes with disabilities by setting state-qualifying standards for those athletes in individual sports including swimming and track and field.

Madigan said the suit would not require schools to allow paraplegics to play football and would not require significant new spending beyond that to train officials. “The Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association (GLASA) has offered over the years to work with the IHSA to put these standards and times in place,” she said. “They have worked with a lot of other states; Wisconsin and Minnesota are way ahead of us.”

Callahan, a 16-year-old junior, is paralyzed because of a neurological condition called transverse myelitis. She was a member of Fenwick’s girls swimming team and she likes track but does not participate in Fenwick’s program because she cannot compete in state finals under IHSA rules. The suit seeks for accommodations for field events in track, including the shot put and discus.

“I have full function of my upper body,” said Callahan, who uses a wheelchair. “I can get in and out of the pool myself. I can’t kick; that’s the only limitation I have.

“I don’t feel like I’m confined to a wheelchair in a pool. ... I just want to compete as a high school athlete. I’m like anyone else so I want to have that option.”

According to the suit, Callahan and representatives from GLASA and Fenwick asked the IHSA to make accommodations for disabled athletes at state track and swimming meets, but the “IHSA did not respond to these requests.”

Instead, the suit says, the IHSA filed a lawsuit of its own in April in state court in McLean County.

“The reason we did that is we received a letter from the Attorney General’s office [saying] they felt we were violating state and federal law,” IHSA executive director Marty Hickman said. “We said, we don’t believe we’re in violation of any law with respect to these issues. Their response, almost to the word, was, ‘We won’t talk about the law.’ ...

“We weren’t looking to turn this into a fight. We filed for a declaratory judgment asking the court to tell us what our obligations are. We’re perplexed by this filing.”

In the meantime, the IHSA set up a committee to consider additional options for disabled athletes. The committee heard testimony from representatives from GLASA, parents and schools on April 30 and is to report its progress to the IHSA Board of Directors on June 11.

The IHSA currently conducts a wheelchair basketball competition in conjunction with the boys basketball state tournament. Bill Schalz, who has coached Rosary High School in Aurora to four girls swimming state titles, is open to the possibility of accommodating disabled athletes in his sport as well.

“I’m certainly all for finding ways to do it,” Schalz said, noting that USA Swimming — the sport’s national governing body — already does so for non-scholastic competition. “There’s ways of doing it without messing up the state meet, without making it longer or more cumbersome.”



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