Court Rules Against Teen With Cerebral Palsy
CHICAGO — Evanston Township High School senior Aaron Holzmueller’s long quest to establish a place for para-ambulatory athletes at the state track meet suffered another setback last week when a federal appellate court ruled against him.
Holzmueller, 17, has cerebral palsy, a condition that affects his balance, coordination and muscular control. Though he is one of the country’s top young Paralympic runners, he can’t match the speed of able-bodied athletes who are fast enough to qualify for the Illinois High School Association championships.
He asked the IHSA to create a category that would allow para-ambulatory runners — athletes who have disabilities but do not use wheelchairs — to qualify for the state meet, an accommodation the organization has made for wheelchair track athletes and swimmers with disabilities.
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While other states have created qualifying standards for those athletes, the IHSA has declined, saying it could lead to unlimited requests for new competitive categories.
Holzmueller and his family sued, but lost the first round last year in U.S. District Court. A judge said Holzmueller failed to prove he would have qualified for the meet if not for his disability.
The Holzmuellers appealed, but in a ruling released late last week, two of the three judges on a panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals echoed the earlier decision.
“Simply put, the qualifying times ensure that the state championship meet is reserved for the best and fastest runners in Illinois,” they wrote. “The odds are overwhelming that runners like (Holzmueller) would not meet the qualifying times even if they were not disabled.”
Moreover, they wrote, forcing the IHSA to establish a new competitive category would be an unreasonable accommodation that would fundamentally alter the elite nature of the state meet.
But the dissenter on the three-judge panel, Ilana Rovner, took issue with her colleagues’ reasoning, saying the same rationale could be used to deny girls a place at the state meet because they’re slower than boys.
“If such a female athlete filed a lawsuit seeking to have a separate category for female runners with different qualifying times, she would not have been asking to be guaranteed a spot in the state finals, but rather she would be asking to have the same opportunity to participate as her male peers,” she wrote.
IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said in a statement that while the organization is committed to inclusion, new competitive categories should be requested by schools, not mandated by courts.
“This ruling does not summarily prevent the IHSA from considering adding any future participation opportunities, instead, it simply emphasizes that we have successful procedures and protocols in place for our member schools to enact change as they see fit,” he said.
Holzmueller and his family said they are open to pursuing another appeal. Their pro bono attorney, Louis Fogel of Jenner and Block, hasn’t decided on that yet, but said the force of Rovner’s dissent gave him hope that Holzmueller might yet prevail.
“I think it’s not a question of whether this accommodation will ever apply in Illinois; it’s a question of when,” he said.
A further appeal, if one happens, might be resolved too late to benefit Holzmueller, since the state meet is set for late May. But he said he would be happy to keep fighting regardless.
“I want the opportunity to compete,” Holzmueller said. “I want someone else to have that opportunity, even if I’m not the one.”
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