January 21, 2013
By Julie E. Lewis
A recent federal court decision, Lyon v. Illinois High Sch. Ass’n (N.D.Ill. 2013), holds that there are instances where student athletes with disabilities must be reasonably accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by waiving eligibility rules. In November 2012, a fifth-year high-school senior requested a waiver from the Illinois High School Association (“IHSA”) to permit him to wrestle after his eight semesters of eligibility had expired. The student had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD”) in grade school and educated pursuant to an Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) since that time. He struggled academically and had repeated his junior year in 2011-2012.
The student was ineligible under IHSA Rules providing that a student is only eligible for competition for eight semesters/four years. The student’s waiver request was denied, and after he exhausted his appeals before the IHSA, he sued in federal court alleging that the IHSA’s failure to accommodate him constituted a violation of the ADA.
The student sought and received a preliminary injunction from the federal District Court. Noting the IHSA’s stated purpose to facilitate students’ safe and equal competition in interscholastic activities “which may provide enrichment to the educational experience,” the District Court ruled that waiving the eight-semester/four-year limitation for the wrestler would not have fundamentally changed IHSA rules. Addressing concerns about a potential competitive advantage for the student, the Court reasoned that because wrestlers are restricted to facing opponents in their weight class, a waiver would not have undermined the IHSA goal of promoting fair competition. The Court ordered the IHSA to grant the student eligibility to participate in varsity wrestling for the remaining semester of the 2012-2013 season.
The Court’s decision does not provide a bright-line rule concerning the eligibility of students with disabilities who participate in athletics and do not graduate within the customary eight semesters/four years. The decision, does however, provide some guidance in this area. If you have questions in regard to the Americans with Disabilities Act or students with disabilities, please contact a Scariano, Himes & Petrarca attorney.