The Illinois High School Association is violating the rights of students with disabilities by not allowing them to compete in state athletic events, according to a lawsuit filed this week by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

The federal lawsuit seeks to require the association to adopt policies that would give athletes with disabilities the opportunity to compete at IHSA-sanctioned events.

The lawsuit cites the case of Mary Kate Callahan, a junior at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Ill. who is paralyzed from the waist down and hopes to participate in the state’s swimming competition next school year.

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Callahan, 16, has asked the IHSA, which regulates state high school athletic events, to establish a scoring system and accommodations that would allow students with disabilities to participate competitively in the track and swimming state finals.

“I’ve always loved competition,” the teen said. “It’s feeling that sense of pride and accomplishment.”

According to advocates, other state athletic associations have adopted policies aimed at making competition more inclusive for students with disabilities.

“Close to half of the country is ahead of Illinois,” said Alan Goldstein, an attorney with Chicago-based Equip for Equity, a disability-rights group that has jointly sued the IHSA with the attorney general.

The attorney general’s office, he said, filed the lawsuit after the IHSA failed to act on a request that it introduce three track events for students with disabilities at the state meet this week at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.

“Every student athlete should have a chance to compete, including athletes with disabilities,” Madigan said in a statement Wednesday. “Many other states give student athletes with disabilities the opportunity to compete. Students in Illinois should have the same chance.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, alleges the association has discriminated against students with disabilities.

“We always have promoted opportunities for student athletes with disabilities, making accommodations upon request in a number of events,” said IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman.

Although officials from the IHSA say they are working on new rules that could expand access to athletic events for those with disabilities, the debate could grow contentious.

Athletic associations face “a delicate balancing act” in creating a scoring system to bring students with disabilities into the fold while ensuring a “fair playing field” for able-bodied athletes, according to the Indianapolis-based National Federation of State High School Associations.

Representing 50 state high school athletic and activity associations, the NFHS helps draft standards and rules for competition.

“It’s difficult for people to understand — why would you disallow a handicapped person from participating,” said Jim Tenopir, the organization’s chief operating officer.

“But the state associations … were established to provide a level playing field, and it is incumbent for (them) to determine what’s in the best interest and fair for every participant.”

The athletic associations, he said, can’t risk tipping of scales in favor of athletes with disabilities by making competition unfair for others.

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