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Updated Jul 8, 2015 - 9:24 am

Mom sues Ohio YMCA, says it excluded boy with Down syndrome

CINCINNATI (AP) — A YMCA in Ohio excluded a 6-year-old boy from a summer camp and some other programs because he has Down syndrome and treated him hypocritically after using his photos in its promotions extolling opportunities for everyone, his mother says in a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination.

The lawsuit filed recently in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati accuses the Great Miami Valley YMCA in Butler County of violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the federal Rehabilitation Act by not providing “reasonable accommodations” in its programs and by discriminating and retaliating against the boy based on his disability. The lawsuit wants the YMCA ordered to provide such accommodations and seeks unspecified damages for Denise Watts and son Steven Heffron.

Watts’ attorney, Richard Ganulin, says the YMCA also has refused to assess Steven to determine reasonable modifications to its practices and procedures to help the child.

“It’s a slap in the face to use Steven as a poster child and then deny him equal opportunities,” Watts said.

The American with Disabilities Act requires summer camps and other entities accommodating the public to make reasonable modifications enabling those with disabilities to participate fully in all programs and activities, and the Justice Department has said that generally means children with disabilities are entitled to attend any camp or activity nondisabled children attend.

Attorney Michael Hawkins is representing the YMCA and says it is still gathering facts. But he said youth development has been a focus of the nonprofit organization for decades, and he is confident it will continue to do everything possible to support young people’s needs.

But Watts maintains the YMCA hasn’t supported Steven’s needs.

The boy completed kindergarten this past school year at a Middletown public school where his mother also enrolled him in the YMCA’s before-school and after-school programs. But the YMCA removed Steven from its morning program, restricted him to a much shorter time than other children at the afternoon sessions and said he couldn’t attend its regular summer camp for typically developing children, according to Watts.

The YMCA told her its regular summer camp and before- and after-school programs aren’t safe environments for Steven and suggested he attend its camp for children with special needs, Watts said.

She said she ended up registering Steven for that camp so he could at least have some summer activity.

“But he thrives in settings with typically developing children and struggles when he’s placed with only special-needs children,” Watts said.

Meanwhile, YMCA officials insist the camp Steven is allowed to attend isn’t limited to children with disabilities.

Watts, who said she lost her job as an assistant teacher in the YMCA’s early education program because of advocating for Steven, hopes her efforts can somehow help other parents and children.

The National Down Syndrome Society isn’t actively involved in the legal action but says it has been in contact with the Watts family and their lawyer and is monitoring the case.

An attorney with Disability Rights Ohio, which advocates for those with disabilities, is also keeping an eye on the lawsuit.

“We monitor pending lawsuits like this to see if they have the potential to create a precedent for other people with disabilities,” Kevin Truitt said.

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