In late June, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) and the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) reached an agreement, settling two pending federal court cases, aimed at ensuring that student athletes with disabilities have full and equal opportunities to compete in interscholastic sports. 

The settlement has its origins in a 2012 case initiated by a former Illinois high school student, Mary Kate Callahan, against the IHSA under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 for failing to address her requests to compete with her school’s swim and track and field teams at the state level. The OAG filed a similar companion case. The IHSA also filed a complaint against Attorney General Lisa Madigan seeking a declaratory judgment that it was not in violation of state or federal law. In 2013, the IHSA and Callahan reached a settlement; the OAG and IHSA have now reached a final agreement to resolve all remaining matters. 

The agreement calls for the IHSA to take several measures to improve opportunities for student athletes with disabilities including:

  • Adopting a new accommodation policy by August 7, 2015, and publicizing it to member schools and participants;
  • Designating an ADA Coordinator to review all requests for accommodation as well as promote and publicize opportunities for athletes with disabilities;
  • Providing training for IHSA staff on disability rights and awareness; and
  • Preparing and posting a webinar outlining the programs and policies of the IHSA related to participation by athletes with disabilities. 

Perhaps most notable in the agreement is the requirement that the IHSA implement a system for students with disabilities to compete and earn points in the Combined State Championships for track and field and for swimming and diving. These new opportunities will be provided alongside long-standing IHSA programs like the wheelchair basketball tournament. The IHSA will also be tasked with maintaining all results and records for student athletes with disabilities as it does for student records for all sports and activities. Additionally, the IHSA will host an annual road race open to all students, including racers in wheelchairs. The goals of this race are to encourage participation of all high school students and increase interest in all high school sports, including by students with disabilities. 

To ensure that the IHSA complies with the provisions of the agreement, the OAG has authority to review IHSA’s compliance at any time. The IHSA ADA Coordinator will also be available to assist member districts in allowing students with disabilities to earn team points in swimming and diving, track and field, and bowling during the regular season. 

The settlement marks a significant expansion of the opportunities for student athletes with disabilities to participate and compete with their classmates at the state level. Many districts already allow and encourage students with disabilities to compete at the local level. Through this agreement, the IHSA will now be able to provide guidance and support to those districts and to districts seeking to expand opportunities.