Paralyzed high school swimmer leads suit against IHSA

May 16, 2012 (CHAMPAIGN, Ill.)

Mary Kate Callahan, 16, wants to ensure that student athletes with disabilities can compete in interscholastic sports throughout the state.

Callahan does not back down from a challenge. As a baby, she contracted transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disease that left her without the use of her legs. But she fell in love with summing, relying on her upper body to power her through the pool.

Her passion for the sport led her to the swim team at Fenwick High School, which lets her take part in competitions. Her swimming is symbolic. She's not allowed to officially compete with her team on Illinois High School Association meets at the sectional or state championship level.

"I train just as hard as everyone else and in the disabled world, I'm ranked up there and it's hard being cut off because you know you put in just as much effort as anybody else," said Callahan.

Callahan and her mother Joanne Callahan, with the help of Equip for Equality and the Attorney General's office, are suing the IHSA to ensure student athletes with disabilities have equal opportunities to compete in the state.

This is not the first lawsuit in this case. Last month, the IHSA sued the Attorney General's office for clarification on the organization's obligations under the law.

The IHSA's executive director says, "We always have promoted opportunities for student athletes with disabilities, making accommodations upon request in a number of events."

"They sued essentially saying that they want a declaration from the court that the federal laws that prohibit discrimination don't actually apply to them," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Madigan says nearly two dozen states have adopted criteria for disabled student athletes to compete. In the meantime, Callahan hopes change will come -- if not for her, then for future disabled athletes.

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