Service dogs play an important role for people with cerebral palsy and many other disabilities, because they provide a range of services that are custom tailored to the specific needs of their owners. Most importantly, specialty trainer service dogs offer their owners independence both on a physical and emotional level — and this week, both won big at the U.S. Supreme Court, thanks to a young lady and her service dog, Wonder.
Ehlena Fry, 13, has cerebral palsy because of a malformation in her brain. Born in India, she was adopted before her first birthday by Stacy and Brent Fry of Michigan. Her cerebral palsy does allow Ehlena to walk with a walker, but daily activities can take her a longer amount of time, and with greater effort needed than anyone else.
In 2009, Ehlena’s family thought a service dog would help her physically and emotionally, and make her more independent. Her community helped her raise the $13,000 training fee for Ehlena. Wonder, a goldendoodle, quickly became the support Ehlena needed to gain skills for independence.
At the time, Ehlena was in kindergarten at Ezra Eby Elementary School, and her parents wanted Wonder to assist their daughter in school. However, school officials had other ideas. They argued that Wonder was not necessary for Ehlena’s educational environment because she already had a human assistant; besides, they feared allergies would be a problem, even though the dog is hypoallergenic. The school gave the arrangement a 30-day trial, but placed many restrictions on Wonder that her parents eventually decided to home-school Ehlena. In time, another school district welcomed Ehlena and her dog.
Wonder helped Ehlena with balance, getting to her desk, opening doors, picking up items on the floor and using the school bathroom. In addition to the physical support, Wonder also gave Ehlena a sense of confidence and inner strength. The dog performed her job so well that she is now retired, because Ehlena has learned how to do these things on her own.
Meanwhile, many hearings and meetings took place about Ehlena’s case. The school stood by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which mandates that special education students with a dispute claims must go through an administrative process to take the case to court. This is exhausting and extremely time-consuming.
Eventually, the case ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Ehlena’s family cited the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which allows service dogs in any public building. The Supreme Court took Ehlena’s side, and she can now sue the school without going through lengthy administrative procedures. Among other things, her lawsuit seeks damages for the emotional pain Ehlena went through.
Service dogs and other animals are becoming more and more common, thanks to greater understanding of how they help people with disabilities. Hopefully, schools and other institutions will no longer deny or unnecessarily compromise someone’s independence and safety by not allowing those animals access.
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