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Wheelchair Athlete Competes for Equal Treatment


The United States is one of the most progressive countries in the world in protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability, is credited with mandating schools and employers to integrate people with disabilities into the mainstream of society. But the process of integration has not been easy and even today, 16 years after the passage of this law, the struggle continues. VOA's Brian Padden reports on one wheelchair athlete's quest to race alongside her peers.

Before this race even begins Tatyana McFadden has already won.

"I just like running with everyone," she says.

Until recently, Tatyana was prohibited by the Howard County School District, located close to Washington DC, from racing in her wheelchair alongside the other kids. Citing safety issues, the county said that wheelchair athletes had to race in separate events. Because Tatyana is the only wheelchair athlete in the county, this ruling meant that she had to race alone.

"I really didn't like running by myself,” says Tatyana. “It was lonely and embarrassing and people just looked at me differently."

Anyone who thought that Tatyana and her mother Deborah McFadden would quietly abide by this seemingly arbitrary ruling knew very little what they had overcome in the past. Tatyana was born in Russia with spina bifida, leaving her partially paralyzed. Abandoned by her mother, she was taken to an orphanage in St. Petersburg. It was there that Deborah McFadden found Tatyana.

"She told someone there, 'It's my mom.' She knew -- maybe before I did," says Deborah.

Deborah brought Tatyana to America and adopted her. She also adopted her sister Hanna, who too is disabled, in Albania. She renovated her home to make it handicap accessible and encouraged her daughters to compete in life -- no matter their limitations.

Tatyana McFadden trained intensively to compete in the 2004 Athens Paralympics. There she won silver and a bronze medals. So they were not going to let the county's ruling stand unchallenged.

"I said, ‘I'm going to file a suit and if I file a suit I'm going to win.’ You are allowed to participate. So I filed for no money. And people usually file for a million dollar lawsuit. I was filing for opportunity," said Deborah.

Deborah McFadden told the judge that marathons already have wheelchair athletes sharing the same track with runners. Allowing Tatyana to run alongside the other athletes, she successfully argued, would pose no undo risks, would cost no money and would not alter the sport. Thanks to the court ruling Tatyana McFadden can race now alongside her peers.

"The first meet I got to run with everyone,’ she says, “that was just as exciting as the Paralympics because I got to run with everyone and the excitement of the crowd was tremendous."

Deborah McFadden says this legal battle transcended sports. "This was more than about track. It was about that we all belong and that is what educators should be teaching."

She says allowing Tatyana to compete not only makes her a better athlete, but also makes society better.