How the Americans with Disabilities Act levels the playing field

Tatyana McFadden was born with spina bifida, which left her paralyzed below the waist. But she knew by the time she was 10 years old that she wanted to be a Paralympic athlete.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) helped her get there. That 1990 civil rights law made sweeping changes to daily lives, including among sports participants. It ensures that whether you’re on the field or in the stands, you’ve got the same chance as anyone else to enjoy the game. July 26 marks the 27th anniversary of the signing into law of the ADA by President George H.W. Bush.

Two men running on track, one wearing blindfold (© AP Images)
The United States’ David Brown, left, races with his guide during an event celebrating one year to the start of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. (© AP Images)

Today, McFadden is a 17-time Paralympic medalist, having taken home four gold medals and two silvers from the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

“All I wanted to do was join my high school track team,” McFadden said. When her school would not allow her to participate in her wheelchair with other runners, she brought a lawsuit. She didn’t seek money. She wanted the right to participate.

“That’s when the ADA came into effect,” said McFadden, who was adopted from St. Petersburg, Russia, at age 6 and grew up in Clarksville, Maryland.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, organizations that sponsor sports must provide a person who has an intellectual, developmental, physical or other disability an equal opportunity to try out for and compete on teams. These organizations must make reasonable accommodations for competitors with disabilities, such as using a visual starting signal instead of a starting gun for a runner who is deaf or waiving the two-hand touch rule for a swimmer with one arm.

McFadden played many sports in her youth, including wheelchair basketball, sled hockey, swimming, gymnastics and track and field. She continued her athletic career at the University of Illinois, where she joined the Fighting Illini’s wheelchair basketball and wheelchair track.

“Now that’s federal law,” McFadden said in a Google video celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ADA in 2015. “We have the right to do everything and anything that we want, and it’s because of the ADA.” McFadden has won four consecutive grand slams of the world’s major marathons, with wins in Boston, London, Chicago and New York in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.



What about the sports fans?

The Americans with Disabilities Act also lays out guidelines so that all spectators can likewise enjoy watching sports. For example:

  • Spaces must be specifically designed and set aside for wheelchairs in all seating categories, from the best seats to the upper tiers of a stadium. Assistive hearing systems must be offered.
  • Accessible routes have to connect wheelchair seating with entrances, restrooms, locker rooms and backstage areas.
  • Concession stands must be at a height that works for wheelchair users or those who have other disabilities.

These same requirements apply to neighborhood swimming pools and soccer fields.