Wheelchair Athlete Wins Right to Race Alongside Runners

By Jon Gallo and Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A celebrated high school athlete who uses a wheelchair will be allowed to compete in a high school track meet against her able-bodied peers who will race on foot, under a ruling issued yesterday by a federal judge.

Tatyana McFadden, 16, a sophomore at Atholton High School in Columbia, will be allowed on the track at the same time as the other competitors but will be scored separately under a preliminary injunction granted yesterday in Baltimore by U.S. District Court Judge Andre M. Davis.

Davis ruled in a lawsuit filed against the Howard County Board of Education by McFadden and her mother, Deborah.

Tatyana McFadden is among the world's top wheelchair racers.

The school system had allowed the teenager, born with spina bifida and paralyzed from the waist down, to practice and travel with the track team.

But at track meets she has been limited to racing -- usually alone -- in events designated for wheelchair athletes. She and her mother argued that the distinction prevented her from participating fully in team life.

McFadden's lawsuit was based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which the judge cited in his ruling.

He found the school system in violation of the act, which prohibits the exclusion of people with disabilities from programs and activities that get federal funding.

School officials said yesterday they will comply with the ruling. It was not clear whether they would pursue the matter further.

"We're going to have to follow the judge's orders because that's all we can do," said Mike Williams, county coordinator of athletics. "The judge ruled in her favor, so we have to abide by what he says."

McFadden said yesterday that she will compete in a county meet at Long Reach High tomorrow in the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,600-meter runs.

"My next race is going to be so meaningful to me because I'll feel like everybody else," McFadden said. "Before, the only way I could compete was by myself, and it felt like I was just out there alone."

Her attorney, Lauren Young of the Maryland Disability Law Center, said she believes the ruling will pave the way for other disabled athletes.

"We're thrilled. We hope that other kids with disabilities see they have access to full participation in athletic programs in schools."

McFadden was born in Russia and adopted at age 6 by Deborah McFadden of Clarksville, who soon learned of her daughter's interest and ability in athletics. The teenager has since established herself as a premier wheelchair racer, winning a silver medal in the 100-meter dash and a bronze medal in the 200-meter dash at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.

Last spring, McFadden got her chance to compete with runners in the 400-meter dash at a Prince George's County meet at C.H. Flowers High School. But a few days later, although none of the competitors was injured, Howard officials cited safety concerns and told McFadden she had to race separately.

She will be allowed to compete in as many as four events -- the most allowed for any competitor under Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association rules, which govern athletics at the state's public schools.

"That's awesome for Tatyana," said Atholton junior Alison Smith, who will probably run on the same track as McFadden in the 400- and 800-meter races tomorrow.

"I run against her on the track at practice all the time, and there's never been any problem. I felt bad for her when they cleared the track, but she handled it well."

Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company