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Autism service dogs in the classroom: a human right?

A human rights case involving a child’s autism service animal in a school may hinge on whether the dog is a necessary form of accommodation to support the boy’s disability, says Toronto human rights lawyer Nicole Simes.

“The boy’s lawyer will have to prove that the animal is required because of his disability and that it’s not just something he would like to happen, but that it is a form of accommodation he needs,” says Simes, associate with MacLeod Law Firm.

According to the Canadian Press, a Waterloo region family is taking their son’s case to the Human Rights Tribunal after the school board told them having the Labrador dog in class would place undue hardship on school staff. The boy’s father says the board has not responded to medical evidence that was provided along with information supported by a school that matched the boy to the dog.

Simes tells AdvocateDaily.com that schools are service providers under the Human Rights Code, obligating them to comply with the legislation.

“The legislation requires them not to discriminate on the basis of a number of grounds including disability, and to provide accommodation on the basis of disability,” she says. “The test for accommodation is that it needs to be provided as long as it doesn’t cause undue hardship.”

Factors that could lead to such “undue hardship” include cost and health and safety, she says.

The child’s family must produce medical documentation to prove he has autism and information to support that the service animal is a requirement because of that disability to trigger the duty to accommodate, Simes says.

The school board did not comment to the Canadian Press, however the boy’s father says administrators have voiced two main concerns. 

“One centred around the fact that the school door was locked when lessons were in session, thereby making the building private property and giving the board the right to dictate whether the dog was welcome or not,” according to the news story.

The second issue raised concern around the fact the boy, who is prone to high anxiety, frequent meltdowns and attempts to flee school grounds, could not fully handle the dog.

Simes says she would be very surprised if the school board used the first argument that the school is private property because “that would not be a defensible position in this human rights case.” However, the second point could tread into the area of health and safety.

As noted in the news story, the school board policy creates a distinction between a service animal and a companion or therapy animal based on whether or not the person benefiting from the dog is the one controlling the animal.

Simes says she has previously represented the family of a student with autism who has taken legal steps to be accommodated. While the case did not involve a service dog, she says it shows the “hard line” school boards appear to be taking on accommodation requests for autistic children.

She says perhaps the school board is concerned that allowing an autism service dog could open the door to many more accommodation requests for students who say they need a dog to assist them with other disabilities.

Otherwise, Simes says cases involving service dogs are nothing new.

“Certainly the Human Rights Tribunal hears many cases where people are still discriminating against those requiring service animals — such as those hard of sight or hearing.”

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