Why Disabled Athletes End Up Going to Court

Published November 13, 2022

Imagine you’re in high school and you’ve found a way to compete on the varsity team all year. You feel included, you feel like part of something larger, and you know that you’re showing what a disabled person can do. But then administrators get involved and tell you your efforts don’t count. 

Words like eligibility, safety, and legality get thrown around, but you just want to play. You want to quit being on the sidelines and participate with your peers. In the end, you have to stand in front of a judge. The legal system decides whether your sporting journey can continue. 

Athlete access is a long-standing issue

This has been the reality for many US high school athletes, even years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) came into force. 

Many of the athletes who had to ask the legal system to affirm their rights when school administrators refused have gone on to be multi-time Paralympians. Visa-endorsed wheelchair track and field racer Tatyana McFadden was part of a suit in 2006. Rose Hollermann, who has been to three Paralympics and is a professional wheelchair basketball player in Germany, had to go to court against the Minnesota State High School League in 2011.  

And they are far from the only ones. Mary Kate Callahan, now an accomplished triathlete, was the plaintiff in a state-led suit against the Illinois High School Associate in 2012. Since then, legal actions have also been taken in Pennsylvania (2021), Florida (2019), and Illinois (2017). 

While some were unsuccessful in their efforts, this amount of legal action points to a recurring theme in high school sports: disabled athletes have often been an afterthought. 

Links to the digital world

You’d be forgiven for wondering what this has to do with digital accessibility. Well, for one, take a look at Accessibility.com’s legal database and you’ll see scores of situations just like these. Whether the industry is retail, food service, consumer goods, or some other area doesn’t matter. What matters is that the lack of digital accessibility – just like barring a high school athlete from competing on a track with their classmates – boils down to a lack of care. 

Secondly, these athletics-based lawsuits remind us that the US legal system and the ADA often require lawsuits for action to be taken. What can feel like a last resort in so many other situations becomes the only path forward for many people with disabilities. There have been critiques of the commonality of these lawsuits – 22% of 2021’s website accessibility lawsuits came from 5 plaintiffs – but these advocates are making a point. When the majority of the web is inaccessible, lawsuits become one of the only tangible ways to point out an imbalance. 

Third, in many of these sports lawsuits, plaintiffs weren’t suing just for the right to compete. Athletes and their families were suing for the right to compete alongside their peers. That is a vital distinction. They were suing to be allowed to have their race points count, to be able to line up against able-bodied competitors. 

In essence, they had to go to court to prove their worth, regardless of whether they were competing for their country on the weekends. Just because these athletes already had the right to compete didn’t mean their experiences were equitable. Similarly, just because a disabled person can open your website doesn’t mean they’re having an experience that is both accessible and inclusive. 

Solutions are similar on the track and on the web

So, what can you do about it? What lessons can we learn? Well, we can acknowledge that access is a moving target and there is always more work to be done. Some see that as a negative, a reason to lament progress. However, athletes suing their school districts and athletic associations show that inaccessibility is a lifelong concern and an ever-changing proposition. 

If your website is inaccessible, it’s probably the thousandth your upset user has come across that isn’t usable for them. These concerns are additive and being able to find common threads allows us to build a better digital world.

The second and, perhaps, more important lesson is that there is a very long history of inaccessibility. We have a ton of accessibility guidelines and tools at our disposal, but the core reasons for inaccessibility – lack of resources, lack of care, and lack of planning – are similar whether you’re talking about a domain or a high school athletic association. 

In the end, learning from our mistakes means looking at non-digital barriers to accessibility just as much as it means finding the right designer and adhering to the right standards. 

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