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Ohio Mom Sues YMCA For Excluding Son With Down Syndrome

Image: Steven Heffron, Denise Watts

Steven Heffron, 6, and his mother, Denise Watts, play in Smale Riverfront Park in downtown Cincinnati. Watts has filed a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination, saying an Ohio YMCA excluded her son from summer camp because he has Down syndrome and treated him hypocritically after using him in promotions extolling opportunities for everyone. John Minchillo / AP

It's a battle for integration, but race is not the issue.

An Ohio mother is suing a YMCA she says won't accept her son into its general summer program, only offering the boy with Down syndrome a spot in its camp for kids with disabilities.

In addition to refusing to make reasonable accommodations for 6-year-old Steven Heffron, the Great Miami Valley YMCA uses him "as a poster child for its programs with the tag lines 'Providing Opportunities for Everyone,'" the federal lawsuit, which includes photos of YMCA promotional material featuring Steven, says.

His mother, Denise Watts, of Middletown, Ohio, said she's been asking for months for the YMCA to allow Steven into the camp.

"Each time they just said no, that it wasn't safe, the environment wasn't safe," she told NBC News. "It's more like he's a liability, but that's not my fault."

Steven Heffron, 6, wasn't allowed to go to the YMCA camp his mom wanted him to go to. Courtesy of Denise Watts

Steven, who Watts said is often described by people as "the most charismatic kid they've ever met," just finished kindergarten at a local public school. He hoped to go to the YMCA camp because his classmates were going there.

Watts wanted him to have the experience of going to a mainstream summer camp. According to civil rights attorney Richard Ganulin, who represents Watts, "Steven shuts down when he's segregated with just children with disabilities."

"Some people with disabilities are very, very medically fragile and very disabled, and Steven doesn't respond well when he's segregated with just individuals with disabilities," Ganulin, who is based in Cincinnati, told NBC News.

The suit accuses the YMCA in Butler County of violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the federal Rehabilitation Act. Watts said she suggested they accommodate him by adding another counselor to the group of campers that Steven is with. She said she also proposed only sending Steven for half-days as a compromise.

"I'm not asking for anything that's off the walls," she said. "But they're saying it would change the continuity of the program."

In a statement provided to NBC News by its attorney, the YMCA said safety "is the organization's number one priority." It also denied that Camp Campbell Gard, the camp it recommended for Steven, is a camp only for children with disabilities, saying that only 20 percent of campers there have developmental disabilities.

"These children simultaneously participate in the same activities and programs as children without developmental disabilities," the statement from attorney Michael Hawkins said.

Ganulin said that, in addition to the camp, the YMCA also won't allow Steven to attend a before-school program, and will only let him attend an after-school program for 15 minutes a day.

"The YMCA or any other program that is subject to these laws has to make reasonable modifications to accommodate Steven's needs to allow him to have equal access," he said. "There are behavioral experts who assess situations like this and they provide recommendations for how to accommodate the needs of someone with a disability. We asked the YMCA to do that here, but it refused."

The YMCA's response, he said, was that it didn't have sufficient staffing or training to make sure Steven was safe in its general summer program, but said it welcomed him at Camp Campbell Gard — which Watts maintains is for disabled campers.

If that's true, it is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Kevin Truitt, an attorney with non-profit Disability Rights Ohio.

"The child has a right to be in an integrated program. They can offer what are called segregated programs, which is just children with disabilities, but he has the right to be in an integrated program for children without disabilities," Truitt told NBC News. "They have to accommodate his needs to ensure he has the same access to this program as any other child."

With the YMCA not budging, Watts will send Steven to the camp for special needs so he doesn't spend the summer cooped up in their apartment. The lawsuit seeks for accommodations to be made for Steven at all of the YMCA's programs, plus unspecified damages.

Watts worked part-time at the YMCA until March of this year, and says she was fired for expressing her frustrations about the lack of support there for Steven.

"Denise is a single mom," Ganulin said. "Basically her life is dedicated to Steven's welfare."