A Carol Stream family has initiated a federal lawsuit against Special Olympics Illinois and Community High School District 94 for denying their 17-year-old daughter, Jenny Youngwith, a full and equal opportunity to participate in basketball and track programs administered by the two organizations. Due to her respiratory impairment, Jenny uses her service dog Simba, a trained seven-year old yellow lab mix, to carry her small and lightweight oxygen tanks.
The federal complaint filed by Equip for Equality alleges that Community High School District 94 and Special Olympics Illinois are partners in the special education sports programs. The two organizations denied Jenny the opportunity to compete in basketball games and track events because she needed to use oxygen tanks. The Complaint cites violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and state law.
When refusing to let Jenny participate on the basketball team, Special Olympics Illinois failed to provide a specific justification for its decision, but instead just deemed her use of a service animal and oxygen tank as "not appropriate." Jenny's family submitted numerous letters of support from physicians, physical therapists, coaches, teachers, the Mid-America Service Dog training organization, and parents of other children with disabilities, confirming her ability to fully participate in competitive basketball.
The decision is especially upsetting as Jenny loves basketball and has safely participated in basketball games for six years, while using Simba to carry her oxygen tanks. At 15 inches tall and weighing fewer than 4 pounds, Jenny's tanks are far smaller than a full size tank, weighing more than 20 pounds, that an athlete was permitted to pull on a cart in another state's Special Olympics basketball competitions.
Jenny's participation was restricted not just in basketball games, but also in track and field meets. Jenny was prevented from participating in any running events on the track, despite the presence of an open lane between each runner and Simba's ability to remain in the unoccupied lane.
The National Special Olympics website acknowledges that young people know firsthand the pain of being left out, teased and excluded. "It was devastating to Jenny to be denied participation, while at the same time, hearing her classmates talk about their fun and success on the basketball court," states Jenny's mother, Janice Youngwith. "Special Olympics is a wonderful organization, but it is disheartening that, in this instance, it has chosen to ignore its own mission statement by unlawfully excluding Jenny from participating in its basketball program. Organizations that promote inclusiveness, like Special Olympics and public schools, should not prohibit Jenny from doing any activity that she can safely undertake." Added Jenny, "I just want to keep playing sports with my friends. I really like playing basketball and doing track at school. It's a lot of fun."
"As the nation celebrates the 20th anniversary of the ADA, it's ironic and incredibly sad that in Illinois a young girl's ADA rights are being violated by Special Olympics Illinois and her school district, forcing her to turn to the courts," states Zena Naiditch, President and CEO of Equip for Equality, which advances the civil and human rights of people with disabilities in Illinois and is the Governor designated, federally mandated Protection & Advocacy System for the State of Illinois. "We hope that this lawsuit reminds all of us that while the ADA has had a huge impact on creating a more accessible society, much work still remains to be done."
Community High School District 94 is located in Chicago's far western suburbs and serves students from West Chicago, Winfield, and portions of Carol Stream and Wheaton. According to its website, Community High School strives to promote and provide growth experiences in learning, leadership and living.
Special Olympics Illinois, headquartered in Normal, Illinois, is accredited by Special Olympics, Inc., which operates in all 50 states and in more than 180 countries. According to its website, Illinois supports nearly 21,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities annually from communities throughout the state.
Equip for Equality is a private, not-for-profit legal advocacy organization and is the federally mandated Protection & Advocacy System designated to safeguard the rights of people with physical and mental disabilities. More information is available at: www.equipforequality.org