While federal law protects a blind person’s right to be accompanied in any public place by a service animal, the rights of children with autism who rely on trained dogs to keep them safe, regulate unruly behaviour and help them develop socially are not so clear.
National service dog agencies estimate nearly 1,500 children with autism have been paired with an animal. The Toronto Star spoke with families across Canada with the animals, several of whom described drawn-out, draining meetings where “standoff-ish” board officials debated the dog’s value and raised concerns about potential allergies, cultural sensitivities (can a child who is prohibited by religion from drawing an animal be in the same room as one?), strained resources (who would fill the dog’s water bowl?) and liability insurance.
Only one mother, Ali MacDonald, a nurse in the military community of Kingston, N.S., praised school and board staff for making the process an “easy” and positive one for her 11-year-old son, Noah.
“Parents of children with disabilities should not have to fight one school at a time, and one barrier at a time, to ensure that their kids can fully participate in and benefit from school,” said David Lepofsky of the non-profit Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.
Having schools and boards across the province “reinvent the wheel” every time this issue arises “wastes public resources,” said Lepofsky, a blind lawyer whose human rights case famously forced the Toronto Transit Commission to announce all subway, bus and streetcar stops.
His group is now campaigning for an Education Accessibility Standard.
“We aim to make this one of the issues in the two Ontario byelections.”
ARCH Disability Law Centre, a Toronto-based legal aid clinic that defends and advances equality rights for Ontarians with disabilities, is also lobbying for a fair, standardized policy on service dogs in schools.
In Beamsville, Ont., after a year of discussions that included intervention from an equality-rights lawyer, Senator Gibson Public School agreed to take Kaitlyn Younger’s black Labrador named Catch, on the condition that if the dog relieves itself on school property, the Grade 2 student’s mother will clean the mess.
“They’ll put a pylon beside it in the school yard, they’ll call me and I have to come get it,” said Ingrid Hansen-Younger, who has spent the past year trying to help other families navigate the service dog issue with school boards. “I don’t mind picking up the waste but all that effort instead of just grabbing a shovel? I wouldn’t want another child to step into it.”
School principal Andrea Grieve said the protocol is “part of our board’s procedure.” She said “having Catch has been a very positive experience for us.”
In Burlington, 10-year-old Sasha Pohl-Weary has a desk at the back of a classroom but spent most of the fall semester in her school’s dimly lit chill-out room or at home trying to manage her overwhelming anxiety. For some children, having autism is at times like being in a space crammed with television sets, each operating at a different volume with pictures blurring in and out, a sensory overload. That’s how a former special education teacher from Halton, Cate Hawkins, has come to describe it. Sasha calls it going black.
Reid, the shaggy dark Labrador she received from Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides in December 2012 helps reduce those episodes.
“If I get the dog engaged with her, it helps regulate her and bring her back down,” said Sasha’s mother, Colleen Pohl-Weary.
The school board says the issue comes down to staffing.
Sasha does not have a devoted education assistant to direct the dog as needed.
“If she hit other kids, she could get an EA but kids who implode don’t qualify,” Pohl-Weary said. She worries her daughter will have to repeat the school year.
A spokeswoman for Halton District School Board said support is provided for students with disabilities based on individual needs. She would not explain what criteria the board uses to allocate resources.
A Lions Foundation trainer is working with Sasha to see if she can assume the trainer role herself though another national service dog agency advises families and schools against this practice.
“Children with autism are not in a position to independently handle and direct their dogs. The whole point actually is that they don’t,” said Danielle Forbes, executive director of Cambridge, Ont.-based National Service Dogs, the first agency in the world to train autism service dogs.
“They can’t make safe decisions for themselves.”
But even children who have an education assistant are not guaranteed access.
Sixteen-year-old Eric Segal of Vaughan shares two assistants with a handful of classmates at Stephen Lewis Secondary School.
Mom Sharon Gabison has been meeting with school and board members since last May. She described the initial gathering as “standoff-ish.”
“The general flavour was they couldn’t understand the point of the service dog,” she said. “At one point, I said, ‘It appears you’ve already made up your mind.’ ”
At home, Gabison, a physical therapist, said she’s seen incredible changes in her son since he received the Lions Foundation service dog. He sleeps through the night, no longer getting up to wander the house or neighbourhood. He picks up the telephone when it rings, more confident and capable of talking with whoever is on the other end of the line.
Eight months later, she is still hopeful the school can accommodate Eric’s dog, Azra. Last week, the board reviewed with her its draft protocol on service animals, which laid out a 15-point checklist of things that must happen before Azra can attend school. They assured her these are not barriers or delay tactics but she is skeptical because there is no mention of a time frame.
Also alarming is a proviso that parents bear the full financial burden of hiring a dog handler to work with the child on school property.
Steven Reid, York Region District School Board superintendent of student services, confirmed the protocol should be in place by year’s end, if not sooner. It will be posted publicly so everyone has a “clear understanding of the process.”
In deciding whether to accommodate a service dog, the York board’s draft protocol states school principals must consider the medical needs of students and staff
(with respect to allergies), children with fear of dogs and those with a cultural sensitivity to animals.
“In cases where the accommodation of a service dog is required and there are medical or sensitivity issues in the class or school, provision may need to be made for the student and the service dog to attend either a different class or school,” the draft policy states.
Laurie Letheren, a lawyer with ARCH Disability Law Centre, said concerns about service dogs are often overblown because of a basic misunderstanding. “You’re not petting this dog,” she said.
Tracey Drexler has had enough. The Winnipeg mom will start scouting private schools for 6-year-old son Braydon this month even though technically she won her years-long battle with Sansome School and the St. James-Assiniboia School Division.
She started the process when Braydon was in kindergarten and on the waiting list for a service animal. They requested a standard poodle because it’s hypoallergenic. She pressed the school division to create a policy on service dogs. Eventually it did.
While the school has agreed to conditionally accept Braydon and his dog, Keats, as of March, Drexler said the process has been excruciating and doesn’t consider it a win. She feels the amount of documentation they requested violated Manitoba’s human rights code and was a strategy to send her “running around in circles.”
The school is insisting she purchase expensive liability insurance and will not allow the dog to take the bus for field trips.
She is also upset the school will be sending home a letter to parents about Braydon and Keats but has refused to tell her how widely it will be circulated or what exactly it will say.
The school and the division have not responded to the Star’s requests for comment.
“It’s kind of ridiculous,” said Drexler, a nurse who took a leave from work to enroll in the education assistant program at University of Winnipeg so she could become a better advocate for her son and other children. She graduates this month.
She may have given up on Sansome School but the battle isn’t over.
“I’m part of a group of six outspoken moms of children who have autism. We’re all going to be running for school division spots this fall to pass some new policies.”