Equal-access bill passes

Amid its flurry of final-day action, the General Assembly unanimously approved a bill requiring schools to provide disabled students access to sports programs, either among themselves or with able-bodied students.

Under the measure known as the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities, schools have three years to fully implement the requirements.

"Once this bill is passed, you can't take it away," said Tatyana McFadden, an Atholton wheelchair athlete who testified at hearings last month in Annapolis.

"This opens the doors for many people with disabilities," McFadden said. "People will not hesitate to try out for their teams. No one can say, 'No.'"

The legislation, which takes effect in July, requires local school systems to submit their plans to the state education department, which would investigate complaints and could sideline noncompliant teams or withhold money from schools or school systems.

State education officials initially opposed the legislation, saying it would require school systems to pay for extra employees - an estimated $2.8 million statewide - to ensure compliance.

The state now favors the legislation, said Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent with the department's Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services.

"We are pleased that we could reach a compromise," said Baglin, although she did not elaborate. She added she did not know how much it will cost the state to implement the changes. "We are very pleased it passed. It provides us the opportunity to work with local systems."

McFadden, 18, was born with spina bifida. In 2004, she won two medals in track at the Paralympics in Athens, Greece. In 2006, she sued for the right to share the track with her high school teammates in Howard County.

"We have been working so hard on this and finally we got this," she said.

Her mother, Deborah McFadden, said they were excited to learn about the legislature's approval Monday night.

"We're changing the landscape of opportunity for people with disabilities," she said. "Students with disabilities have the right to all activities that are offered in the school system."

Lauren Young, litigation director at the Maryland Disability Law Center, said the bill "evens the playing field."

Young anticipates the number of disabled students who participate in athletics will increase.

"Over time, you will start seeing these programs coming online and developing, and that is the goal," she said. "We're really excited about that."


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