Illinois Disabled Track Athlete Claim Denied, Again, by Federal Appellate Court

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs Illinois, has denied a disabled track athlete’s request for a rehearing, following the court’s original denial of the athlete’s Americans with Disabilities Act claim against the Illinois High School Association (“IHSA”). In the case of A.H. v. IHSA, No. 17-2456 (7th Cir. Feb. 2, 2018), A.H., a senior at Evanston Township High School, was a full member of his school’s track and field team, despite having spastic quadriplegia, related to cerebral palsy; specifically, he has impaired muscular control and a limited range of motion in his hips, knees, and ankles. In other words, his disability impacts his ability to run. Under the International Paralympic Committee classifications, he is a T-36 disabled athlete. He is considered an elite athlete in the paralympic circuit, having competed to be in the paralympic trials in 2016.

The IHSA sets qualifying races times for the state track competition. At the state competition, competing athletes can earn points for their team. The team with the most points earns the team track and field state championship. The qualifying times are, by design, difficult to attain—only 10% of competing athletes qualify for state. A.H. cannot attain the state qualifying times. Therefore, he submitted a formal request to IHSA requesting (1) a different set of state qualifying times for T-36 disabled athletes such as himself, and (2) that he be permitted to use a modified starting block. The IHSA granted his accommodation request for a modified starting block but denied his request for a different set of state qualifying times. A.H. filed suit in federal court arguing that the IHSA’s refusal to grant him an accommodation was a violation of his rights under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. When the trial court sided with the IHSA, A.H. appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which controls several states, including Illinois.

A three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the IHSA’s decision did not violate the ADA or Section 504. Specifically, an accommodation is not reasonable, under the ADA, if it would fundamentally alter the nature of the program. The court determined that setting parambulatory qualifying times to make it easier for some runners to qualify for State than for others would fundamentally alter the IHSA’s competitive track program. In addition, the court applied the “but for” causation standard and decided that it was not “but for” A.H.’s disability that he did not qualify for the state competition. Rather, only 10% of runners qualify for state, whether able-bodied or not. As a result, the court held that A.H.’s accommodation request for special qualifying times for certain runners was not a reasonable accommodation, and therefore, the IHSA had the right to deny the accommodation request.

On February 16, 2018, A.H. requested a rehearing of the court’s decision and a rehearing before the full panel of Seventh Circuit judges. On April 10, 2018, the court denied A.H.’s requests for a re-hearing. As a result, the court’s ruling against A.H. should stand, absent an appeal by the student to the U.S. Supreme Court.

School districts must take into account more considerations than the IHSA to accommodate students with disabilities in athletics and other activities. Contact Jennifer Mueller or Pamela Simaga with all of your extracurricular accommodation inquiries.

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