A blind teenager has been booted out of the Special Olympics pool change room because of her guide dog.
She said she’s been told to use a different changing room from the rest of the swim team because some members of the team are afraid of her guide dog. The irony is the organization she’s having the issue with is one that regularly champions people who live with disabilities.
Now nineteen years old, Ashley Wournell has been legally blind her entire life. Two months ago she got Zoe, a Labrador Retriever guide dog, who changed her life for the better.
“I can be more independent with her. I can do basically everything myself now,” Ashley said. “It’s a huge difference.”
Wournell is a swimmer and says the Special Olympics program has also made a huge difference in her life.
“Me getting out there and having a healthy lifestyle and making friends,” she said.
But she says it’s now the organization that is causing her frustration. She’s been told not to bring her Labrador guide dog into the changing room her teammates use because some of them are afraid of the dog.
“To me that’s like denial and discrimination,” Ashley said.
She says she’s been told to use the family change room but Zoe has already established a routine for the main dressing room and there are children in the family area.
“They’ll come over and try to pet the dog and you telling a kid not to pet a dog that is working, they don’t understand that,” Ashley said.
A spokesperson says three members of the team presented with extreme fear in response to the dog. She says that the coach was trying to create a safe environment for everyone involved and that the team whole-heartedly supports Wournell’s quest for independence.
“I want them to realize or educate the parents and the team (that) this is a working dog,” Ashley says. “He’s not going to do any harm.”
The season is over for the summer but as it stands, Wournell isn’t sure if she’ll be able to return to the program in the fall.
She’s surprised because this is an organization that focuses on improving the lives of people with disabilities.
The Special Olympics spokesperson says the organization has been in touch with Ashley Wournell’s family. She says they are happy to work with them on this and that they take safety and creating a positive sporting experience very seriously so hopefully a resolution will be found.