Too Special for Special Olympics? Group Bans Girl With Service Dog

Illinois girl with special needs, service dog banned from basketball games

ByABC News
August 26, 2010, 5:45 PM

Aug. 27, 2010— -- Jenny Youngwith is the girl next door; an all-American blonde teen from the heartland who loves her family, her dog and most of all playing basketball.

She is also developmentally disabled and suffers from a respiratory condition that requires her to breathe from an oxygen tank when involved in any activity more strenuous than sleeping.

That tank weighs just four pounds and is carried by a trained service dog named Simba. Simba, a yellow lab mix, goes everywhere with Jenny: to class, to church, the swimming pool, the baseball diamond, even performing alongside her at a ballet recital, and even on the basketball court. At least in the beginning.

"I like playing basketball," the 17-year-old high school senior told "I miss having the chance to play with my friends."

For six years Jenny has played basketball at a club at Northern Illinois University, with Simba at her side and a five-foot tube connecting her to the oxygen tank Simba carries on his back in a harness. More recently she's played during gym class at her school, also with Simba, and without problem or objection.

"Simba is my best friend," Jenny said. "He lets me be more independent."

So, when her public high school outside Chicago announced last fall that the Illinois branch of the Special Olympics would establish basketball and track programs there, Jenny jumped at the chance to wear her school's uniform and play with her friends.

But Special Olympics banned Jenny from playing, in essence saying she was too special for Special Olympics. That prompted her parents to file a federal discrimination suit, demanding to know why their daughter was being sidelined.

The problem arose when Jenny's school district entered an agreement with the Special Olympics, promising to abide by the organization's rules. That meant no court time for Jenny, though the organization won't say whether it's because of the oxyen, or Simba, or both.

"She's been playing with the same kids at the school for years. We don't know the reasons she is not allowed to play now," said Jenny's mother Janice Youngwith. "We provided them with letters from her doctor, coaches, and parents. We even offered to put her oxygen tanks in a backpack."

Banned from Special Olympics; But Why?

The Youngwiths say the don't know why Jenny is not allowed to play, and the Special Olympics isn't giving them a clear answer.

"While we cannot comment on the specific allegations made in the Youngwith lawsuit regarding the use of service animals and metal oxygen tanks by athletes during competitive sporting events, we hope the community will recognize Special Olympics Illinois must make decisions that take into account the safety and well-being of all athletes participating in its sporting events and practices," the group said in a statement.

According to its Web site, Special Olympics, an organization committed to inclusivity and providing athletic outlets for people with "intellectual disabilities," services 21,000 disabled athletes annually throughout Illinois.

Jenny has also been banned from participating in Special Olympics-sanctioned track events, even though her family said Simba runs alongside her in an empty lane. This summer she did participate in one Special Olympic event, winning a gold medal in the softball throw.