Federal Judge Upholds State Athletic Association’s Decision Not to Allow Disabled Athlete to Compete

Sep 15, 2017

A federal judge from the Northern District of Illinois has held that the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) was within its rights to deny an accommodation of a disabled athlete, who has cerebral palsy, to compete in the state track meet.
While acknowledging that the “reasonableness of accommodations for disabilities is often a fact question,” in the instant case “the question can be resolved as a matter of law, both because there is no evidence from which to infer that A.H. could meet the required performance standards were he not disabled and because a public entity need not lower its qualifying standards to facilitate participation by the disabled.”
Plaintiff A.H. is a high school student at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Ill. Since his freshman year, A.H. has been a member of his school’s swim, track, and cross-country teams. During his three years of high school, A.H. has missed fewer than five track and cross-country practices and has never missed a meet. A.H.’s coach has made him feel welcome “to the best of [his] ability” and A.H. is accepted and respected by his teammates and coaches, according to the court. A.H., whose physical disabilities affect the basic mechanics of running, has received awards for his leadership and determination from his track coach.
In addition to competing on the high school track team, A.H. frequently participates in adaptive sports against other individuals with disabilities. A.H. competes both locally and nationally in these competitions, including the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Trials. Within the disabled athletic community, A.H. is seen as an “elite” and “up and coming” athlete who may well compete internationally in the future, according to the court
Despite these achievements, A.H. has never been able to compete in the state finals for track, a competition sponsored and managed by defendant IHSA. The association does not offer a division for athletes with disabilities in track unless they use a wheelchair.
Selected by his coach, A.H. ran the 1,600-meter race at the spring 2017 sectional competition (which is a qualifying race for the state championship) against able-bodied athletes, but he did not run fast enough to qualify for the state finals according to the metrics used for able-bodied runners. A.H. finished last in that race, almost a minute and a half behind the next fastest runner. It is undisputed that even the world record holders for runners with A.H.’s disability classification would not meet IHSA’s qualifying times to compete at the state track meet, according to the court.
On or about Sept. 26, 2015, A.H. made three requests to IHSA regarding its track program: 1) that he be allowed to use a modified starting block, 2) that IHSA create qualifying time standards for para-ambulatory athletes for the state finals, and 3) that IHSA create a para-ambulatory division in the annual Road Race event. Only the latter two requests are at issue in this case, because IHSA’s Executive Director granted the request permitting A.H. to use a modified starting block. On Oct. 8, 2015, IHSA’s Executive Director (Dr. Hickman) denied A.H.’s request for different time standards and the new para-ambulatory division.
On October 25, 2015, A.H. appealed the denial of his accommodation requests to the IHSA Board, which scheduled a hearing for Dec. 14, 2015. After the hearing, the Board affirmed the Executive Director’s decision, reasoning that A.H. was already participating on his school’s track team and that he had the opportunity to participate even if he was unlikely to win. Individual board members expressed that granting A.H.’s requested accommodations would give him an unfair competitive advantage compared to able-bodied students because he would have a greater opportunity to advance to state from the sectional competition given the much smaller number of competitors he would face.
Following the Board’s denial of his appeal, A.H. filed this suit on Feb. 4, 2016, seeking accommodations for the following: “that IHSA establish realistic qualifying times for para-ambulatory athletes to compete in the state finals and that IHSA establish a para-ambulatory division in its annual 5K “Road Race” event.”
IHSA moved for summary judgment on all counts.
After exploring all elements of the argument, the court concluded with the following:
“Where all this leaves us is that, for the most part, A.H.’s claims cannot succeed as a matter of law. IHSA is not required, by statute or the Constitution, to lower the qualifying standards for the athletic competitions it sponsors (the accommodation A.H. seeks regarding the finals) or to create alternative athletic competitions (the opportunity to medal in a separate division in the Road Race). Therefore, the court cannot compel IHSA to make those accommodations for A.H. and IHSA is entitled to judgment in its favor (with the limited safety exception noted). Nevertheless, the court adds its voice to those of A.H., his parents, his coaches, and his fellow athletes and schoolmates (both disabled and non-disabled) in urging the IHSA to reconsider its evaluation of A.H.’s requests. Although those requests will indeed alter the competitive character of the events in some sense, they will surely enhance and enrich the experience of the participating student athletes in other respects. As the IHSA has already recognized in some other contexts, enabling the full participation of disabled athletes alongside (as closely as possible) their able-bodied peers, and factoring their performances into the successes and failures of their school teams, will devalue the meaning of ‘state champion’ for no one. Rather, it will provide still more examples of determination, discipline, and perseverance from which we may all take inspiration for our own endeavors. A.H.’s participation in the state finals won’t diminish anyone else’s success, or highlight anyone else’s failure. It will simply give us all another reason to cheer.”
A.H., a minor, by his father and next friend, Keith Holzmueller v. Illinois High School Association; N.D Ill.; No. 16-CV-1959, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 104916; 7/7/17
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Louis E Fogel, LEAD ATTORNEY, Lina Ragep Powell, Ren-how Harn, Shaun M. Van Horn, Jenner & Block LLP, Chicago, IL; Abraham Michael Salander, Jenner & Block, Chicago, IL. (for defendant) Matthew S. Heffelfinger, LEAD ATTORNEY, Hellfinger, Royster, Voelker & Allen, Peoria, IL; Andrew J Roth, Brett Michael Mares, Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen, Chicago, IL; Tyler James Pratt, Heyl, Royster, Voelker, & Allen P.c., Champaign, IL.


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