Written by Brad Weiner

When freshman enter high school, they are often encouraged to participate in school-wide clubs, interscholastic athletics, and other student activities. During orientation, they listen to lots of students and adults who paint a picture of involvement and commitment. This was certainly the case for Tatyana McFadden, a young woman who was born with a spinal cord impairment.

In 2004, at the age of 15, Tatyana participated in the Athens Paralympics in the T54 100 meter and 200 meter races. The International Paralympic Committee states that the athletes in this classification “will have normal arm muscle power with a range of trunk muscle power extending from partial trunk control to normal trunk control.” These athletes do not have voluntary muscle control in their legs and use a wheelchair for mobility. Tatyana won the silver medal in the 100meter and the bronze in the 200 meter races.

Upon entering high school, Tatyana joined her track team, as she was encouraged to do during freshman orientation. Despite practicing with the track team every day after school, she was not given a team uniform at the first meet of the year. When it was her time to race, the entire meet would stop so that she could perform her event alone and her scores would not be included with the over-all team’s score towards the medals. Tatyana, a medalist at the Paralympics months earlier, couldn’t be considered an equal member of her high school track team. As a result, Tatyana’s family sued the State of Maryland for equal access to school athletics for individuals with disabilities. Four years later in 2008, the Maryland Senate and House passed the Fitness and Athletic Equity for Students with Disabilities Act (FAESDA).

FAESDA ensures that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to try out for and, if selected, participate in mainstream athletic programs. It ensures that reasonable accommodations are provided so that all students have an equal opportunity to participate to the fullest extent possible. The Act also ensures that additional athletic programs are made available. The State Board of Education has allowed the local school systems to develop and administer the additional athletic programs, so districts have adopted programs such as allied sports, adapted sports, unified sports, PALS, or corollary sports. All the programs follow the principles of the law, and they are inclusive in nature. Students without disabilities participate on the same team as the students with disabilities; however, no player may participate in the same sport on two different teams. For example, an individual on the high school baseball or softball team may not also participate on the unified softball team.

Special Olympics has supported the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) by providing funding for coaches’ fees and for the development of the programs under unified sports. Prince George’s County offers unified softball, bocce, and track and field. In 2011, Baltimore County offered allied bowling, softball, and soccer. Howard County also uses the allied sports program offering the same programs as Baltimore County with the addition of golf. Montgomery County offers Corollary Sports including team handball, unified bocce, and allied softball. All the counties in the State have adopted some type of an inclusive program, so if you are the parent of caregiver of a child with disabilities who wants to get involved in sports, I highly recommend that you inquire about what is available in your region of Maryland.