'Service animal was a right,' autistic boy's family loses human rights case

The laywer for a Waterloo region family who lost their fight to allow their autistic son to bring his service dog to class says people's accommodation needs shouldn't be second-guessed if they have a valid doctor's note.

'Yesterday's ruling was in fact a setback,' says Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Michael Harris

Kenner Fee, a nine-year-old boy with his autism service dog Ivy. (Courtesy of Craig Fee)

MPP Kitchener-Conestoga Michael Harris says the Ontario human rights tribunal decision to deny a nine-year-old child with autism's request to bring his service dog into the classroom is disappointing and frustrating.

Kenner Fee and his family were fighting an earlier decision made by the Waterloo Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) that forbid him from having the dog in class, but lost. 

"Yesterday's ruling was in fact a setback," Harris told CBC News, "They failed to really uphold the Ontario Human Rights Code to accommodate in this case."

Laura McKeen, the lawyer representing Fee's family, told CBC K-W there was a "fundamental disagreement" between the family and the Waterloo Catholic District School Board when it comes to whose responsibility it is to prove the need for a service animal.

"What the board member found was that the onus, the responsibility to prove need was on the part of the applicant," McKeen said.

The tribunal ruled in favour of the school board, who gave testimony that Fee was able to perform well in school without his service dog.

"Their evidence was that Kenner was being accommodated and he was basically achieving at grade level and that they didn't see any further need for accommodation," McKeen said.
Fee received his service animal with the support of The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides. The animal had been with him everywhere except for the classroom. (www.facebook.com/VoteAmyFee/)

Ontario Service Dogs Act

The board's director of education Loretta Notten did not respond directly to the case, but said in a statement sent to CBC News that staff "work alongside families to make student-centred, individualized decisions that we collectively believe will allow them to flourish."

Currently the Waterloo Catholic District School Board reviews requests for service animals on a case-by-case basis.

Harris said right now there is a lack of consistency in how school boards treat children with autism who have service dogs. He hopes that his private member's bill, the Ontario Service Dogs Act, will eliminate what he calls a "hurdle" for families when asking for accommodations for their children.

"I'm optimistic and hopeful that we can correct this problem for all families, right across the province, by passing the Ontario Service Dogs Act that would extend the same rights and privileges that are there currently for blind," Harris said.

Under the Blind Persons' Rights Act, any blind person who uses a service dog would not have had to go through the same process that Fee's family had to for their son.

Harris' bill has been re-tabled for the Ontario legislature this fall.

'Service animal was a right'

Kenner received his service animal with the support of The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, and the animal had been with him everywhere except for the classroom.

"It was [the father's] position that the service animal was a right, that Kenner went through his therapy to learn how to use his service animal to cope with his disability and some of his disability-related needs," McKeen said.

She added that their view is if someone has a disability, and has a doctor's note confirming the service animal is required for disability-related needs, there shouldn't be additional questions.

"There shouldn't be any further obligations to second-guess that, to say 'Prove to me why it's needed in the classroom, prove to me why it's needed at the place of employment," McKeen said.

McKeen said at this point, the Fees are preparing their four children for the back-to-school season and have not planned for an appeal.

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