A federal judge in Baltimore granted a preliminary injunction yesterday that will allow a Howard County athlete who uses a wheelchair to compete in track alongside nondisabled competitors.
The Maryland Disability Law Center filed suit on behalf of Tatyana McFadden, 16, a sophomore at Atholton High School and winner of two medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece. McFadden had been denied the chance to race alongside non-wheelchair users and to have her choice of competitive events.
The ruling could provide assurances of equal treatment for disabled students seeking to compete in athletics at schools across the state, said Lauren Young, director of litigation at the law center.
"We're thrilled, not only for her, but the school system got a loud and clear message that kids with disabilities get a chance to participate alongside the kids without disabilities in sports at their schools," Young said. "I think other schools in Maryland will hopefully look at this carefully, that they do have an obligation to include all students in athletics."
Schools in Iowa, New Jersey, Minnesota and Washington allow wheelchair athletes to compete alongside able- bodied athletes in some events, according to advocates for the disabled.
A hearing to decide the case on its merits - in which a permanent ruling would be issued - has not been scheduled, Young said.
But the decision by U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis will allow McFadden to compete alongside nondisabled students for the remainder of the season.
"The more I hear your argument, the more transparently arbitrary and capricious it becomes," Davis told the lawyers for Howard County schools, according to the Associated Press. "She's not suing for blue ribbons, gold ribbons or money - she just wants to be out there when everyone else is out there."
Sydney L. Cousin, superintendent of Howard County schools, said last night that the school system will follow the judge's order. But he pointed out that the decision is not permanent.
"This lawsuit came as a surprise to me because we had been working collaboratively with Tatyana and her family," Cousin said. "I think that in Howard County, we went further than anyone else in the state, to try to encourage the participation of disabled athletes."
McFadden's lawyer argued that the school system is not complying with the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in federally funded programs and activities.
Tatyana, who was born with spina bifida, said last night that she is looking forward to competing tomorrow in a meet at Long Reach High School.
"I was really nervous at first, because I didn't know what to expect. ... But once the case got going, everything was good; the judge understood my side," she said. "This is important to me because I wanted to get the same thrill and the same experience as all the other high school students. There's no competition by myself. It was lonely and embarrassing, and I just didn't like it. Other competitors would come up to me and they would say, 'Good race,' but it wasn't really a good race because I was running by myself."
Her mother, Deborah McFadden, said she has gotten calls from parents of disabled children in Baltimore, Frederick and Harford counties expressing their support. She added that she was gratified by the judge's decision.
"It was such a fabulous hearing," McFadden said. "The judge was unbelievable. I was just choked up."
She was initially hesitant about suing but said that she was inspired by her daughter's tenacity in the face of so many obstacles.
"It's emotionally fatiguing, and financially. ... But when my daughter came to me and said, 'I really want to run,' ... I don't think the school system understood. I didn't sue for a million dollars. I said, 'I'm going to sue for opportunity.' I wasn't trying to be vindictive or mean," she said.
She said the courtroom was filled with Tatyana's friends and that she was very proud of her daughter, who made a promise to her younger sister Hannah, 10, who is an amputee.
"Here's a young girl getting ready to testify, she turned to her 10-year-old sister, and said, 'Hannah, you'll never have to fight to run.'" Deborah McFadden said.