Sixteen-year-old Julia Sullivan uses a powered wheelchair because she has no arms and legs, but the plucky Nebraska teen didn’t let this stop her from trying out for the cheerleading squad at Aurora High School. When the school gave her low marks on certain physical aspects of the tryouts and denied her the ability to be a cheerleader every year for three years, Julia and her parents took on the school board and negotiated an agreement to let the teen try out again with certain accommodations.
The teen has participated in other school activities like marching band, and the school had no problem accommodating her disability by allowing her to attach the symbols to her wheelchair. Her parents say the cheerleading official’s inability to make similar accommodations for the teen are frustrating and unfair. “For us,” said her father, Mike Sullivan to the Omaha World-Herald, “It’s the basic principle. Any handicapped child in Nebraska could be kept out of activities.”
The school district superintendent, Damon McDonald, told local news sources, “The Aurora Public Schools policies and guidelines are appropriate and legitimate for all students.” The superintendent went on to say that the school district didn’t violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and that to accommodate Julia would “fundamentally alter” the cheerleading program. The school board is seeking legal advice on their policies regarding students with disabilities and programs like cheerleading.
Recently, Mike and Carolyn Sullivan, Julia’s parents, have reached an agreement with the school board on accommodations so that Julia can try out for the squad again in the spring. According to LiveWell Nebraska, the agreement between the parents and school officials levels the playing field for teens that have disabilities who wish to participate in sports and other school-sponsored activities. In the agreement, the district acknowledged that they are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities under the law.
“To us, this wasn’t simply about cheerleading,” stated the Sullivan’s attorney, Kevin Schneider. “It was about how we’re going to handle” such cases in the future.
UPDATE: According to the Ionia Sentinel-Standard, Julia has achieved her goal of becoming a cheerleader! The Portland High School Varsity Cheerleaders of Michigan invited Julia to come cheer for their school after hearing she was not being allowed to cheer at her own high school in Aurora, NE.
Inspired by Julia’s courage, Portland, MI welcomed the Nebraska teen as an honorary member of their cheerleading team in time for the homecoming celebration. Not only did they bring Julia and her family out for the event, but the whole community organized to make sure the Sullivan’s stay with them was warm and accommodating.
Julia recorded every moment in her journal, noting, “I will always remember it.”