Woman Says She’s Not Allowed at Her Children’s School with Her Service Dog

Rainbow District School Board says it only recognizes service dogs trained by an accredited organization Sam Juric, CBC News
Posted: Apr 04, 2023

Last summer, Lesley-Anne Bardeggia was prescribed by her family doctor to begin using a service dog, on the recommendation of her psychotherapist.

Bardeggia is neurodivergent, which means her brain processes information in a way that’s not considered typical, and lives with an anxiety disorder.

Bardeggia said she got Trixie from a farm in southern Ontario, and independently trained the dog – an affectionate four-year-old poodle speckled with patches of grey and white fur. She used to own a dog daycare, where she handled hundreds of dogs, and has worked as an obedience trainer.

Bardeggia said Trixie has been a big help in managing her mental health:

“I call her my key to the world,” she said.

“I have a lot of social anxiety. I stay away from big events and even small stuff really. I don’t like crowds.”

Since incorporating Trixie into her life, Bardeggia said, the service dog has accompanied her to emergency visits at Health Sciences North, weddings and social events, all without incident, but she’s felt increasingly unwelcome at her children’s school.

I appreciate everything they’re trying to do for our kids, but it’s really hard not to think that it’s just a work-around. – Lesley-Anne Bardeggia, referring to her children’s school
She said both of her sons are neurodivergent and struggle in school, so she’s attended various parent-teacher meetings in the past.

Last September, Bardeggia said, she notified Princess Anne Public School staff, in an email, about her new accommodation for her service dog, and suggested that she visit with staff to introduce Trixie before making an official visit to the school. She said she also provided them with the medical notes from her family doctor and psychotherapist.

However, she said, the school told her not come and it needed to look into the matter first. After numerous phone calls and emails, Bardeggia said, she was finally granted access to the school with the service dog, on what it referred to as a “one-time” basis, for a parent-teacher meeting night.

“It went really well. We got to go to our first son’s classroom and see his environment and speak to the teacher, and [Trixie] did great. There were other families in the hall and there was no problem.

“My other son’s classroom was upstairs and they kind of ushered us to the principal’s office. So we weren’t allowed, or able or I don’t know why … we didn’t get to see his environment,” she said.

“We did have a very good session with his teacher and it went well. Everything was fine, but there was just kind of that missing piece of, ‘Why couldn’t we go upstairs?”

Since then, Bardeggia said, one of her sons in particular has been struggling in school. When the school reached out to have a meeting about it, she mentioned she would need to bring her service dog, and not long after, she received a call to reschedule the meeting.

Undue hardship

“Their [the school’s] offer immediately was a video conference call. So, is it a conflict of schedule and difficulty?

“I appreciate everything they’re trying to do for our kids, but it’s really hard not to think that it’s just a work-around,” Bardeggia said.

David Lepofsky is chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance. He’s also a retired lawyer.

He said that generally, people with a disability have a right to bring their qualified service animal to services and facilities, under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

“If parents of students are welcomed and entitled to go into a school for a meeting or an activity, then parents who have a disability have an equal right to go into that school,” Lepofsky said.

If the parent needs a qualified service animal to be able to fully participate in an activity there, they have the right to bring that service animal.

“If the parent needs a qualified service animal to be able to fully participate in an activity there, then they have the right to bring that service animal. And to refuse to allow them to do so would contravene the human rights code, unless the school board or other organization can show that it’s impossible for them to accommodate the use of that service animal without undo hardship to that organization.”

If there are issues with the service animal, for example, a student is fearful of the service animal or has an allergy, the school has a duty to investigate potential solutions, Lepofsky said.

“It isn’t just enough for an organization like a school board to say, ‘No we have a policy in place, or no we don’t think that’s a good idea, or no that’s not allowed.

“If they’ve got a concern, they have to identify the concerns to the individual and investigate alternative solutions.”

Bardeggia said neither Princess Anne Public School nor the school board has communicated any specific concerns about Trixie. She also said she hasn’t received any complaints from other parents or students.

CBC News reached out to the Rainbow District School Board, which said it can’t comment on individual situations.

It did say, however, that under its administrative procedure, the board only recognizes service dogs that have been trained by an accredited organization.

Cilvy Dupras has been a registered psychotherapist in northeastern Ontario for 30 years.

Dupras said specific criteria are considered when recommending a service dog to a patient, and they can be very useful for people with special needs.

In fact, it’s one of the reasons she has a therapy dog that works in her office.

“My dog would sense when people are crying or people are upset, and she would go … I’ve seen people open up because they were able to pet the therapy dog we have in session.”

Dupras said even as service dogs have become increasingly more common, her clients tell her they face barriers in using them about 30 per cent of the time.

“In 2023, it shouldn’t happen right now. The world is opening to a lot of diversity, and a lot of differences and options and alternatives. It reduces the range of possibilities for so many people.”

What the Ontario Disabilities Act requires

But under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), in order for a service animal to be recognized, it’s only required that it either be easily identifiable (for example, wearing a vest or harness) as relating to the person’s disability, or the person can provide documentation from a regulated health professional confirming the animal is required due to a disability.

Under both the Ontario Human Rights Code and the AODA, service animals do not need to have certificates or identity cards.

The Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility echoed this and told CBC News, “The AODA asks all provincial partners to work together to find common ground and balance when it comes to making Ontario accessible. This includes local school boards, who should work with the family to find the right solution for this student and their family.

“If someone feels that they have been personally discriminated against based on a disability and would like action to be taken against a specific person or organization, they may contact the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, which handles claims of discrimination filed under the Ontario Human Rights Code,” the ministry’s emailed statement said.

Bardeggia said she’s still holding on to hope the school will communicate better and find a solution – for both her and her children’s sake.

But if the school isn’t willing to do that, Bardeggia said, she’s considering filing a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

“It hurts too much to stay silent, and the fear of speaking out was much easier to deal with than remaining silent and worrying that I would miss out on years of my sons’ educational life,” she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Juric is a CBC reporter and producer, through which she’s had the privilege of telling stories from P.E.I., Sudbury and Nunavut.

Original at https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/sudbury/sudbury-service-animal-accomodation-1.6798048