Parents of kids with autism fight to get service dogs in schools

February 03, 2014

by Diana Zlomislic / thestar.com CANADA
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Parents of children with autism are battling school boards on an equal-rights issue that promises to heat up ahead of this month’s provincial byelections.

Do dogs belong in classrooms?

Families that have seen their easily agitated, sometimes non-verbal children blossom into calmer, more communicative kids around highly trained service animals think so. Supported by lawyers and equal-rights activists, they are fighting for the dogs to be viewed as assistive devices, no less essential than hearing aids in helping kids absorb curriculum.

But school boards have wildly inconsistent or nonexistent policies on the issue, forcing many parents to spend months — sometimes years — negotiating their way through the system as their child languishes academically.

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.

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