Athlete Sues for Right to Compete; State Passes Athletics Equity Law

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Tatyana McFadden has spinal bifida and uses a wheelchair. She is a Paralympics medalist and world record holder.

As a high school freshman,  Tatyana sued her school for the right to compete on the same track, at the same time, as her non-disabled teammates. Her high-profile case won hearts, and led the Maryland General Assembly to pass a unique law — the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act.

Tatyana’s life began in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was born with spina bifida, a neural-tube defect that left her paralyzed from the waist down. 
Abandoned by her birth mother, she was sent to an orphanage. The orphanage had no money for a wheelchair, so Tatyana walked on her hands, dragging her legs behind her.

During her first six years of life, she struggled to survive.

When Tatyana was six, Deborah McFadden visited the orphanage. Ms. McFadden was a commissioner for disabilities in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Ms. McFadden adopted Tatyana. In May 1995, Ms. McFadden brought her newly adopted daughter home to Ellicott City, Maryland.

Tatyana’s athletic career began with swimming lessons at a local program for children with disabilities. She has competed successfully in basketball, hockey, tennis, archery and wheelchair racing.

In 2004, Tatyana won two medals (silver – 100m; bronze – 200m) at the Paralympic Games in Athens. At 15, she was the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic Track & Field Team.

Tatyana Sues Howard County Schools

Tatyana and her mother believe that children and adolescents with disabilities should have the same opportunities to participate in sports and PE programs as children who are not disabled.

In 2006, Tatyana sued for Howard County School for the right to compete on the same track, at the same time, as her teammates. School officials claimed that her racing chair created a safety hazard and gave her an unfair advantage. The  Maryland Disability Law Center filed a lawsuit citing the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that prohibits exclusion of persons with disabilities from activities that receive federal funds.

U. S. District Court Judge Andre Davis agreed and granted a temporary injunction that allowed Tatyana to compete on the track with others. “She’s not suing for blue ribbons, gold ribbons or money — she just wants to be out there when everyone else is out there,” he said.

A few months later, the school district relented.

Tatyana’s victory was short-lived. A few weeks later, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association ruled that wheelchair athletes, while allowed to race in certain events in regional and state meets, could not  earn points for their school teams.

Video of Tatyana, Teen Wheelchair Athlete (01:46)

Maryland Passes Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act

In 2008, the Maryland legislature passed the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act.

This landmark law requires boards of education to develop policies to include students with disabilities in their physical education classes and athletic activities. The law requires schools to provide students with reasonable accommodations to participate, the chance to try out for school teams, and access to alternative sports opportunities.

The Maryland law is the only state law of its kind in the nation, and could be a model for other states, or for federal legislation.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is conducting research on this issue (see GAO Probes Access of Students with Disabilities to Sports at

What happened to Tatyana?

Tatyana is a student at the University of Illinois and a member of the renowned University of Illinois wheelchair program.

At the 2008 Pararlympic Games in Beijing, she won four medals (three silver, one bronze), proving that she is one of the best wheelchair racers in the world.

In October 2009, Tatyana broke the 17-year old wheelchair course record for the Chicago Marathon by nearly five minutes with a time of 1:39.56.

We expect Tatyana to break more records and inspire other young athletes. Stay tuned!

  1. I would like to add that parents with competitive athletes with learning disabilities who want to play at competitive colleges (divisions 1 and 2) should contact the NCAA as they have a parent resource center. You must know the academic requirements and eligibility rules so competitive high school athletes with dyslexia meet the requirements. Know the requirements before your child enters high school so they are tracked appropriately and receives progress monitoring and help to prepare for the SAT and receive accommodations. This takes careful and directed transition planning. This also goes for divisions III school–do your research.

    • How can I look for more information, my son it’s a senior and this season he was exclude from the team. No reason why, only that coach told him go an practice other sport. Coach give priority to freshman coming from a private club to play as Varsity and the team is on Division 3.

  2. Way To Go Tatyana McFadden!!!
    Our dreams have no limitations or obstacles in them. At some point in our lives, we all “Assume” that we are worthy and capable of achieving goals that we are passionate about.
    At some point in our lives, we are introduced to someone who was put on this earth to offer their “opinion” of what you can or can not be.
    Sticks and Stones may break our bones, but words from a teacher or school Administrator have destroyed dreams and given many permission not to try.
    There should be a hall of fame for the Tatyana McFaddens and Pete Wrights of the world. . . Their teachers had no idea just how far above the “norm” these individuals would rise, or the positive impact they would have on so MANY lives.
    The message for our kids should always be YOU CAN DO/BE (insert dream here)_______

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