The Illinois Attorney General's Office and an advocacy group for the disabled filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday that aims to force the organization that oversees high school sports in the state to allow disabled athletes to compete in swimming and track events.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago by the Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Equip for Equality accuses the Illinois High School Association of violating disabilities laws by not providing equal access to competitions.
The suit was filed on behalf of 16-year-old Mary Kate Callahan of LaGrange. Her school, Fenwick High School in suburban Oak Park, lets her compete in local swimming meets but she can't win points for her team, and IHSA championships don't include the separate category she seeks for disabled swimmers.
"We work just as hard and want to represent our high schools at the highest level of competition just like all athletes," Mary Kate said. "The IHSA is preventing us from doing so."
Madigan said the lawsuit aims to force the IHSA to allow disabled swimmers and track-and-field athletes to compete and earn points in all competitions starting with the 2012-13 year, including their own classification at state championships. The IHSA could then add opportunities in other sports later.
The IHSA says it already allows disabled athletes to compete in some cases and has a committee looking into greater access for the disabled.
"We've been actively engaged, listing to stakeholders, advocacy groups, parents, student athletes and others to determine how to enhance opportunities for our student athletes, all of our student athletes," Director Marty Hickman said in an emailed statement.
Equip for Equality argues that more than a dozen states have the kind of provisions for disabled athletes to compete in sanctioned events that the lawsuit seeks.
"This lawsuit seeks to bring Illinois in line with many other states, which already fully include student athletes with disabilities," said Zena Naiditch, the group's president.
After meeting earlier this year with attorneys form the attorney general's office to discuss access for disabled athletes, the IHSA filed its own lawsuit against the attorney general, asking a judge to find that the association's current policies don't violate disabilities laws. That lawsuit in McLean County Circuit Court is pending.
The IHSA is the governing body for all but 18 of Illinois' 811 public and private high schools.
Mary Kate is paralyzed from the waist down after contracting a neurological disorder called transverse myelitis as an infant. She's reliant on a wheelchair but swims using her arms and shoulders. She has been swimming competitively since age 6. She also wants to participate in track.
She said she hopes to force a change that would let her fully compete during the 2012-13 school year, her senior year.
"I really want to do this for all the kids who might be coming in down the road," she said in an interview earlier this week.
Madigan said attorneys from her office tried first to reach an agreement with the IHSA out of court, but filed the lawsuit after the association sued the attorney general's office.
Hickman has said the group has, for instance, allowed a golfer with vision problems to use a spotter, and conducts a wheelchair basketball tournament each year along with the state championships. The committee is expected to make recommendations on broader access next month.