Illinois attorney general dives in on behalf of disabled high school swimmer

Mary Kate Callahan, a 16-year-old swimmer who is paralyzed from the waist down, just wants a chance to get in the water when it counts.

The high school swimmer from La Grange, Ill., gained a powerful ally in her quest to compete in high school meets when the state attorney general, Lisa Madigan, and Chicago-based disability group Equip for Equality joined her federal lawsuit against the Illinois High School Association. The suit charges the association is violating the federal Rehabilitation and Americans with Disabilities acts by not establishing athletic competition standards for students with disabilities.

"We just want to be looked at as able-bodied," Callahan told "We want to be looked at like everyone else and represent our high school like other students are."

Madigan said the lawsuit seeks to allow all students with disabilities to compete and earn points in interscholastic high school meets and to establish qualifying standards for disabled students so they can compete at state meets, set records and earn medals like all other students. The suit seeks to require the state association to incorporate those changes initially for swimming and track and field sports in the 2012-2013 school and to expand to other sports thereafter.

“Many other states give student athletes with disabilities the opportunity to compete. Students in Illinois should have the same chance,” Madigan said in a statement.

Callahan, who suffers from a neurological disorder called transverse myelitis that she contracted as an infant, has been swimming competitively since age 6. She told she prefers distance events, like the 200- and 500-meter freestyle, but says she loves swimming because “with swimming, you don’t feel confined to a wheelchair.”

“You don’t feel any different in the pool and don’t require any additional equipment," she added, when talking about competing against fellow high school students.

She hopes the lawsuit will force a change to allow her to fully compete as a senior next year.

"I really want to do this for all the kids who might be coming in down the road," Callahan told the Associated Press during an interview this week.

Of Illinois’ 811 high schools, 793 public and private high schools are members of of the Illinois High School Association, the only organization statewide through which high schools can compete in interscholastic competitions. Nationally, 15 other states already provide the opportunity for student athletes to compete that the Illinois association currently does not, Madigan said.

Callahan, who swims for Fenwick High School in Oak Park, competes in local meets, but does not earn points toward her team’s final total, and state championships do not currently hold separate events for disabled swimmers.


“This lawsuit seeks to bring Illinois in line with many other states, which already fully include student athletes with disabilities," Equip for Equality President Zena Naiditch said in a statement.

Madigan said the lawsuit was filed following attempts by her office to resolve the matter out of court. The Illinois High School Association filed suit against the attorney general’s office in April, asking a judge to find that the association’s current policies do not violate disabilities laws. That lawsuit in McLean County Circuit Court is pending.

"For years, we have looked past disabilities and accommodated student-athletes — as people — in sports like gymnastics, golf, bowling, swimming, cross country and track and field," association Executive Director Marty Hickman said in a statement to "We’ve been actively engaged, listing to stakeholders, advocacy groups, parents, student athletes and others to determine how to enhance opportunities for our student athletes, all of our student athletes. We are confident that by working together we will help raise awareness about the abilities of people with disabilities and continue to be a leader."

Hickman said disabled athletes already are permitted to compete in State Series events and formed a committee in April to find ways to provide more access to disabled athletes. The committee, which is surveying nearly 800 member schools to develop a census of student-athletes with disabilities, is expected to report its findings by June 11.

In a statement to, officials at USA Swimming, which does not govern high school swimming programs, encouraged people with disabilities to participate in the sport.

"We seek to involve people with disabilities in existing competitions and programs for all swimmers, rather than provide unique disability-only opportunities," the statement reads.'s Greg Norman and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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