Blind student says Laurentian University suggested he 'leave the guide dog at home'

These two students are in the same program at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., but can't be in the same class because one uses a guide dog that caused the other to have a severe allergic reaction.

Classmate of Sudbury, Ont., student who requires a service dog is seriously allergic to dogs

Tyler George, a social work student at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., said he didn't want to raise a 'big stink' about his allergies until a visit to the emergency room following a reaction changed his mind. (Supplied by Tyler George)

Tyler George, a third-year social work student at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., has severe asthma that can be triggered when he's near dogs.

In September, George found himself in the same class as a student who is legally blind and has a Golden Labrador guide dog accompany him.

The result wasn't pleasant for George.

"I ended up suffering a severe asthma exacerbation and was hospitalized, taken by ambulance to Health Sciences North, and spent quite a number of hours getting medical treatment," he said.

After being discharged from hospital, George sent information to the university, along with supporting documentation from his doctor. He said his goal was to find a solution that would accommodate both students. 

"I knew it would potentially be a complex situation that would require more than just a couple of days of investigating and a couple of days to maybe find a solution," George said. "That was about 15 weeks ago."

Laurentian offered some solutions, but George described them as "very inappropriate." 

One suggestion was for George to wear a mask in the classroom. It was also proposed that the dog be left in the hallway for three hours, or left at home.

"For me this was outrageous," George said. "This was not something I could ethically stand for, and so I immediately raised concerns about that...and there had to be something fair and equitable for both of us."

The university also offered a bigger room for the class and installed air purifiers, but even that proximity to the service dog still affected George.

Guy Carriere, shown with his guide dog Dixon, says news of a fellow student's allergic reactions came as a 'bombshell.' (Casey Stranges/CBC)

Guy Carrière's story

Guy Carrière, who has been legally blind since birth, and his guide dog Dixon have been together for almost four years.

"I really couldn't do it any other way without him," Carrière said. "He's definitely a very core piece of my life. I spend more time with him than I do with my family. He's by my side 24/7."

That includes resting by Carriere's feet during the three-hour classes.

Carrière said he only heard about his classmate's allergic reactions two weeks into the semester. It came via phone call from Laurentian's department of accessibility services.

"That was quite the bombshell actually," Carrière said. "They called me and had me on speaker phone, and basically just dropped the bomb on me when they said, 'You know, this was the current situation.'

"There was a lot of people present in that meeting, unfortunately I wasn't one of them."

These are things that are not ethically even suggestable, in my opinion.- Guy Carriere

He said the university ran through some options they thought would accommodate both students. 

"I was asked if I can leave my dog at home," he said. "I was asked if I can leave my dog in another room. They could hire somebody to sit in the hallway with him while I attend class, if that was OK.

"I mean these are things that are not ethically even suggestable, in my opinion."

But Carrière said he has been fighting most of his life, and wasn't going to accept these proposals. 

"I adamantly said no right away," Carrière said. "I'm aware of what my rights are and I'm aware of what Dixon's rights are as a guide dog."

While Carrière was away from class for several weeks undergoing back surgery, he said, Laurentian implemented a rotating attendance schedule. George would attend class in person while Carrière streamed from home using Zoom technology. The two would then switch for the next class.

On paper, he said, the proposal was good.

But that was before several technical glitches in the technology made listening to the lectures near impossible. Those glitches included muffled, cracking audio and an intermittent signal. In an email to the students, Shelley Watson, Laurentian University's vice-president of learning and teaching, acknowledged the process wasn't smooth, yet, but could have dedicated IT workers present to make sure the livestream worked.

Carrière said it was also not the best approach because of what he calls the interactive nature of the social work program that requires working with his peers and on social work practices. 

In short, it wasn't worth the price of admission to the program.

"I definitely feel that having a rotating attendance for the next two years and still paying full tuition costs for only being allowed to attend half the time is not a feasible solution," Carrière said. 

The two classmates also proposed a solution: split the class down the middle so both students can attend at the same time. At first, Carrière said the school was on board.

"Obviously this would entail a financial burden on Laurentian, because it would mean having to secure another space or secure another professor," Carrière said. 

"I realize that those are costly, but that's the only logical, concrete, permanent solution to this, and I think it just boils down to Laurentian just not wanting to spend the money and spend the time to do this."

The university declined an interview with CBC, citing privacy concerns, but in an emailed statement said: "Our accessibility team is dedicated to collaborating with both our students and faculty members on matters of accommodation and we emphasize that everyone involved in accommodations has a role to play to ensure success."

In an email to George, Watson confirmed the university will not be refunding his tuition.

With files from Sandra Siren and Casey Stranges