Disabled Student-Athlete Loses Bid for Special Track Division

CHICAGO (CN) – The Illinois High School Association is not required to create a para-ambulatory division that would allow disabled students to compete in track and field events against their disabled peers at regional and state meets, the Seventh Circuit ruled Friday.

A.H. is a high school student with cerebral palsy who is a very high-achieving athlete within the disabled athletic community. He participated in the 2016 U.S. Paralympic trials, and may well compete internationally in the future.

While he is a hard-working member of his high school track team, his disability means that he can never compete on the same level as his able-bodied peers.

A.H. petitioned the Illinois High School Association, or IHSA, to establish a para-ambulatory division and set “realistic qualifying times” to allow a para-ambulatory athlete to compete under different standards than non-disabled athletes.

The IHSA currently has eight different standards for various groups of students, including different genders. A.H.’s proposal would also allow para-ambulatory athletes to compete in their own races against disabled peers in sectional and state finals races.

The IHSA has already established a track and field division for wheelchair-bound students, as well as a disabled swimming division.

However, the association denied A.H.’s request.

Through his father, A.H. sued the IHSA under the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing it cannot legally deny his request for a reasonable accommodation.

A federal judge granted summary judgment to the IHSA last July, writing that “it is an unfortunate fact of athletic life (and life in general, for that matter) that hard work is no guarantee of competitive success.” (Parentheses in original.)

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the ruling Friday, finding A.H.’s request for an accommodation unreasonable.

“The demanding qualifying times established by the IHSA exclude able‐bodied and disabled runners alike, leaving 90% of all runners, many thousands, in fact, from participating at state every year. Simply put, the qualifying times ensure that the state championship meet is reserved for the best and fastest runners in Illinois,” U.S. Circuit Judge William Bauer wrote for the panel’s majority. “There is no reason to believe that disabled runners like A.H. have been unable to attain these qualifying times for state simply ‘by reason of’ or ‘on the basis of’ their disability.”

While acknowledging that A.H. is a very gifted runner despite his disability, the judge said A.H. cannot prove he would qualify for the state championships were he not disabled.

A.H. cannot seek an accommodation simply to make him competitive in a special para-ambulatory division when he is not treated any differently than his able-bodied peers, many of whom do not meet the IHSA’s time standards for state, according to the ruling.

“To lower the qualifying times for state by creating a new division of runners would fundamentally alter the essential nature of the sectional and state track and field meets,” Bauer wrote.

Bauer was joined in the majority by U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Kanne.

U.S. Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner dissented, keeping with her oral argument questioning, which was highly sympathetic to A.H.’s situation.

“How could any athlete ever demonstrate that but for his disability he would qualify for state finals? Had A.H. been born in an entirely different body, one that did not have cerebral palsy, would he be in the top 10% of runners? How can we know what his body would have been like but for his disability,” Judge Rovner asked. “This is an absurd pursuit.”

Rather, she said the majority should have considered whether the IHSA gives A.H. a meaningful opportunity to qualify for the state finals.

She compared his situation to that of an elite female runner who would have a difficult time competing with elite male runners on the basis of her sex.

“I wholeheartedly reject the notion that allowing separate divisions for women and disabled persons somehow ‘undermines the competitiveness’ of a sporting event or denigrates the accomplishments of elite male athletes,” Rovner said.

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