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updated: 8/17/2010 8:41 PM

Carol Stream teen sues to play basketball with dog, oxygen tank

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  • Jenny Youngwith, 17, wants to be able to play on the Special Olympics basketball team at West Chicago Community High School. She uses oxygen, which her service dog Simba carries for her.

    Jenny Youngwith, 17, wants to be able to play on the Special Olympics basketball team at West Chicago Community High School. She uses oxygen, which her service dog Simba carries for her.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer


Jenny Youngwith plays baseball, rides a bike and practices ballet - all with her service dog Simba at her side, toting two small oxygen tanks.

The 17-year-old high school senior loves basketball most of all.

So when the first Special Olympics basketball team was formed at West Chicago's Community High School last year, Jenny was eager to join.

But her family was told it was "not appropriate" for Jenny to be on the basketball court with her service dog and oxygen tank, according to a federal lawsuit filed Monday on Jenny's behalf by Equip for Equality, a legal advocacy organization.

Special Olympics Illinois and West Chicago High School District 94 are named as defendants.

"All I know is Jenny wants to play, and she's devastated they won't allow her to," said Janice Youngwith, Jenny's mother.

Other parents, meanwhile, are concerned the lawsuit could prompt District 94 to end its participation in Special Olympics after just one year.

Being a part of the team has "done wonders" for her daughter's confidence and self-esteem, said Teri Kwasnik of Carol Stream. Her daughter Sara, a 19-year-old in the high school's transition program, has multiple disabilities.

School board President Katherine Doremus can empathize, Her daughter, who has Down syndrome, played on the team last year. "It's a very difficult situation and it's very sad," she said. "For those kids, it was an amazing experience."

However, she added, "in this environment, spending a lot of money on lawsuits for something that is not a high school activity can be challenging, unfortunately."

Jenny, who has a respiratory disorder and other disabilities, played basketball her freshman and sophomore years in gym class at Community High School. Jenny needs oxygen when she is active, so her service dog, a 6-year old yellow Lab mix, carries two 4-pound oxygen tanks.

The Youngwiths, who live in Carol Stream, said they submitted letters supporting Jenny's participation in Special Olympics basketball from doctors, physical therapists, the Mid-America Service Dog training organization, an oxygen company and parents of other children with disabilities.

The Youngwiths also offered to sideline Simba and let Jenny play with just one small oxygen tank in a padded backpack, even though she gets winded more easily carrying the tank herself.

Doug Snyder, president and CEO of Special Olympics Illinois, said in a prepared statement Tuesday that he could not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.

"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 lawsuit charges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and state law. But Special Olympics Illinois is confident its actions "will be shown to be prudent, fair, reasonable and legal," Snyder's statement continued.

Jenny was also barred from Special Olympics running events during track season, despite Simba's ability to remain in an open lane next to her, according to Equip for Equality. She was permitted to participate in some field events, and came home from the state meet with a gold medal in the softball throw, her mother said.

Jenny and her family are hoping for a quick resolution to the lawsuit that will allow her to join her friends on the Special Olympics basketball team, said Alan M. Goldstein, senior attorney for Equip for Equality

"Special Olympics is a wonderful organization," Janice Youngwith said. "We just want to be a part of that."