(Updated: August 18, 2010 at 11:21 AM CT)

The family of a 17-year-old girl is suing alleging that Special Olympics Illinois told her she could not play basketball because she relies on a service dog to carry her oxygen tanks.

Jenny Youngwith has played basketball for six years with the aid of her dog, Simba, who helps her cope with a respiratory impairment. Now, however, Youngwith’s family says they were told by Special Olympics Illinois that it is “not appropriate” for her to participate in their basketball or track and field programs since she requires the assistance of oxygen and a service animal.

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In response, Youngwith’s family filed a federal lawsuit with the aid of Equip for Equality, a nonprofit that’s part of the government-mandated Protection & Advocacy System. Both Special Olympics Illinois and Youngwith’s school district are named in the suit, since the special education sports program in question is run under a partnership between the two entities.

The complaint alleges that the decision to bar Youngwith from participating violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and Illinois law.

“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,” said Janice Youngwith, Jenny Youngwith’s mom. “Organizations that promote inclusiveness, like Special Olympics and public schools, should not prohibit Jenny from doing any activity that she can safely undertake.”

Doug Snyder, president and CEO of Special Olympics Illinois, said in a statement sent late Tuesday that the organization has yet to be served with the lawsuit, but he believes their approach will be found to be “prudent, fair, reasonable and legal.”

“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,” Snyder said.

Special Olympics Illinois is accredited by Special Olympics, Inc., which runs more than 200 programs involving nearly 3.5 million athletes with disabilities around the world.