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Mary Kate Callahan's Fight for Equality

Backed by the Attorney General's Office and a disability rights advocacy group, Fenwick High School swimmer alleges in federal lawsuit the IHSA excludes her from competition.

Peppered by questions from TV and radio reporters, 16-year-old Mary Kate Callahan calmly explained her rigorous training routines and the struggle to simply compete alongside her peers in state competitions.

"I train just as hard as everyone else," the junior said. "You know we put in just as much effort as everyone else."

Callahan, wheelchair-bound because of a paralysis of her lower limbs, is named as a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the Illinois High School Association, the nonprofit regulating the interscholastic competitions across the state.

The lawsuit, filed jointly by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's Office and Equip for Equality, a Chicago-based advocacy group, alleges the IHSA violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and part of the Rehabilitation Act, both of which require equal participation and inclusion in public programs and activities. The complaint was filed Wednesday in federal court. A PDF copy accompanies this story.

Under current IHSA regulations, athletes with disabilities cannot compete with able-bodied athletes and can't advance to IHSA state meets, the suit alleges. That's not the norm in at least 15 states. 

The suit aims to allow all students with disabilities to compete and earn points in IHSA meets, and to establish qualifying standards and rules so they can "compete at state meets, set records and earn medals like all other students," Madigan's office said.

Undeterred by the disability, Callahan, of La Grange, began swimming at 6 years old and has gone onto become a decorated swimmer and track and field athlete. But it's in the pool, and out of her wheelchair, where she excels. She's among the state's top "adaptive" swimmers, with the toned arms to prove it.

Last year, her teammates at Fenwick went to the state swimming championship but IHSA regulations prevented her from qualifying for, or participating in, any meets there, according to the complaint.

"We have very young cousins who've cheered her on," said Joanne Callahan, Mary Kate's mother. "They naturally thought Mary Kate would be going with [the team]. So there's Mary Kate explaining to these little guys who the IHSA is and why she couldn't go. It was heartbreaking."

At a press conference at Equip for Equality's downtown headquarters on Wednesday, Mary Kate and Joanne Callahan said they'd first reached out to the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association for help. (According to the complaint, GLASA first raised the issue with the IHSA five years ago, but nothing transpired.)

Together with Fenwick coaches, the group sent a proposal that outlined some suggestions to IHSA officials in November 2011, ones that would "reasonably modify its policies to include qualifying times for students with disabilities and include one exhibition heat for swimmers with disabilities at the state swimming championship." 

But their efforts were ignored, Callahan said, and it wasn't until Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's Office stepped in did the IHSA begin taking notice. 

Madigan said her office brought suit only after attempts to resolve the issue were "rebuffed" by the IHSA, which decided to file suit against the attorney general's office. Officials there have said they're just seeking clarification about IHSA's legal obligations as the group "continues to champion the rights of student-athletes with disabilities."

Laura Miller, an attorney with Equip for Equality, called the IHSA's legal action "very unusual."

"There were efforts made to resolve this without going to court...it's not actually the first thing we do but I think the IHSA sort of left us with no choice," she said.

Callahan, meanwhile, is about to finish up her junior year. She's already looking ahead to colleges — preferably out west, where she can train outside year-round.

"Our biggest fear is that [new regulations are] not going to be put in place," she said. "It's 2012, people with disabilities are doing so much more and I think people need to realize we're athletes just as much as anyone else in high school sports."

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