MPSSAA adds by-law allowing athletes with disabilities to compete

Four years ago, Atholton High's Tatyana McFadden changed the landscape of high school sports for athletes with disabilities. On Tuesday, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association changed it laws to accommodate those athletes.

New language was added Tuesday to the MPSSAA by-laws, allowing students with disabilities to participate in school sports programs as long as they meet preexisting eligibility requirements, are not ruled to present a risk to themselves or others, and do not change the nature of the game or event. MPSSAA executive director Ned Sparks believes Maryland is the first state to take such action.

In an addendum to the organization's operational guidelines under the heading "Equal Opportunity for Participation," the state board also approved guidelines for school systems to develop "corollary athletic programs" that are not subject to MPSSAA by-laws and allow greater flexibility in meeting the athletic needs of students with disabilities.

In 2006, McFadden, a wheelchair athlete, won the right to compete with able-bodied athletes in track meets after she sued the Howard County school system in federal court. In 2008, the General Assembly passed the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act, requiring schools to give students with disabilities the opportunity to compete in interscholastic athletics.

The act required Maryland school systems to design programs to accommodate athletes with disabilities within three years. The State Board of Education finished the job Tuesday, and Sparks said the measures will go into effect in 30 days.

"Part of what we did [Tuesday] was to simply broaden our equal-opportunity provision to say that students can try out and, if selected, participate" in interscholastic athletics, Sparks said. "There's a caveat that says if their participation would endanger themselves or anyone else or change the nature of the game, then these students can be excluded.

"Part two calls for school systems to establish programs for students with disabilities who cannot necessarily participate in mainstream athletic programs."

McFadden was born with spina bifida, a condition in which the spinal cord or its coverings are not fully developed. She became a world-class wheelchair athlete, competing around the world and winning two gold medals in track at the Paralympic World Cup in England in 2007. Now a sophomore at Illinois, she competes for the wheelchair basketball and track teams.

McFadden's courtroom battles while at Atholton brought mainstream attention to the issue of athletes with disabilities competing with their able-bodied counterparts. She eventually competed in track meets, racing by herself and with able-bodied participants.

"It was the whole impetus [that] made us think about it," said Lauren Young, director of litigation for the Maryland Disability Law Center, which represented McFadden in the 2006 case. Young was also part of a large coalition that drafted the 2008 bill that led to Tuesday's changes. "It's what made people think ... that we could do better on this issue. It's what opened people's eyes."

McFadden's exploits on the track also created controversy, however. In May 2006, McFadden's Atholton teammate Alison Smith saw her victory in the 1,600 meters at the Class 2A state championships taken away when she was disqualified because McFadden was ruled to have been acting as a "pacer" for Smith by rolling in front of her and talking to her.

Then, in May 2008, McFadden and Monica Mason, a runner for Prince George's County's Bishop McNamara, collided after a heat of a 200-meter race. Mason suffered bruises and cuts to her legs and missed her conference title meet because of the injuries.

Young viewed Tuesday's addendum as a victory. "I think it's going to open it up for more participation for kids with and without disabilities," she said. "You're definitely including more kids."

Attempts to reach McFadden's family were unsuccessful.

Sparks said the new guidelines were the result of a two-year process with plenty of give-and-take from everyone involved.

"It represents a collaboration of an awful lot of people: school superintendents, advocacy groups and the athletic association," Sparks said.

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