Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Judge orders school to let Wheelchair athlete race with others

The Washington Post reports that Tatyana McFadden, a Paralympic-caliber Wheelchair track-and-field competitor, has won a suit to require her High School to allow her to run races with the other runners at the school track meets.

According to the article:

Tatyana McFadden, 16, a sophomore at Atholton High School in Columbia, will be allowed on the track at the same time as the other competitors but will be scored separately under a preliminary injunction granted yesterday in Baltimore by U.S. District Court Judge Andre M. Davis.

She is already a member of the track team, and runs in races, but only with other wheelchair athletes (and since there are no other wheelchair athletes, she runs by herself).


She and her mother argued that the distinction prevented her from participating fully in team life.

The judge made his ruling based NOT on the Americans with Disabilities act, but rather a much older law:

McFadden's lawsuit was based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which the judge cited in his ruling.

He found the school system in violation of the act, which prohibits the exclusion of people with disabilities from programs and activities that get federal funding.

In the end, a single wheelchair on the track probably won't be a big deal, but it opens a pandora's box -- and her lawyer thinks this is just the tip of the iceberg:

Her attorney, Lauren Young of the Maryland Disability Law Center, said she believes the ruling will pave the way for other disabled athletes.

"We're thrilled. We hope that other kids with disabilities see they have access to full participation in athletic programs in schools."

My problem is the definition of "disability" as it applies to athletes. I have short legs, and couldn't possibly keep up with long-legged runners even if I was in shape. Others may be able to walk, but may have "problems" with their legs that make it impossible for them to run fast enough to be on the track team. Could I and others join the track team and race in wheelchairs?

The school was worried about people getting hurt running into the wheelchair, and that may or may not be a problem. I don't understand what was so important about being on the track at the same time -- probably because I never made a team in school, because of my "disability" -- the disability to compete with my better-bodied peers.

Casey Martin was a golfer who had Klippel-Trenaunay-Webber Syndrome, which slowly took away the use of his legs. He sued to be allowed to use a golf cart, and won. He was able to argue that walking was not an integral part of the game of golf.

Now we are going to the road where using your legs may not be considered integral to the act of running.

My problem is that atheletics are, in essence, a competition to judge how "well-bodied" you are. At what point does the inability to use your legs to their fullest become a "disability" that then allows you to run in a wheelchair?

We had the ADA so that people who could do jobs, who could shop, who could perform all the normal functions of life, were being denied the right to do so simply because of physical barriers that could be corrected. But a physical competition should be about being physically able, and just like a less-mentally-abled person is unlikely to win a chess competition, a less-physically-abled person may have to accept that they can't run around a race track.

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