The Ontario government has proposed an amendment to legislation that would simplify the accommodation process for students who use service animals in schools.
First, we provide a brief introduction to service animals and then we discuss how the proposed legislation could benefit children who use service animals in schools.
A service animal is an animal, typically a dog, that helps someone with a disability maintain independence. Service animals help people with many disabilities and medical conditions, such as:
- Visual impairments
- Hearing disabilities
- Physical disabilities
Service animals are working animals with duties. They are not pets. Instead, they are assistants or guides and they usually wear harnesses or vests identifying them as service animals.
Moreover, service animals have extensive, specialized training to perform tasks, such as:
- Guiding a person around obstacles
- Warning a person about low blood sugar or coming seizures
- Calming a person in an environment with too much sensory stimulation and preventing behavioural outbursts
- Retrieving out-of-reach objects
- Alerting a person to sounds, such as ringing phones or fire alarms
Guide dogs assisting handlers who are blind must be trained through an approved provider.
In contrast, there are no legal training requirements for animals assisting people with other disabilities. Handlers may train their service animals on their own or with a professional trainer.
In addition to the disability-specific tasks listed above, service animals are also trained to behave appropriately in public places where non-service-animals are not allowed. For example, good service animal behaviour includes:
- Focusing on the handler’s needs
- Avoiding distractions
- Never barking, growling, or jumping
There are two ways to tell whether an animal is a service animal, in addition to its good behaviour:
- If it is visibly apparent that the animal is used by the person for reasons relating to his or her disability; or
- If the person provides an identification card, or a letter from a healthcare practitioner, confirming that the person requires the animal for reasons relating to a disability
Service Animals in Schools
Under the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR), individuals with disabilities may bring their service animals with them to all public places. However, the Human Rights Code ruled in 2017 that schools are not places that all members of the public have access to. This ruling means that all students must request the accommodation of having their service animals in schools, such as:
- In the school building
- In the classroom
- At all school activities
Requests for service animals in schools are heard on a case-by-case basis.
To date, only 39 of the 72 Ontario school boards have policies that offer clear guidance on how these requests should be handled. The proposed legislation would help school boards develop policies that clearly outline the process families should follow when requesting the accommodation of service animals in schools. When school boards fail to create policies addressing the possibility of students with service animals, or when their policies are unclear, children may not receive the classroom accommodations they need.
If the amendment to create guidelines is approved, members of the public will have the chance to make recommendations about what school boards should be encouraged to include in their policies. Thus, families, school officials, and other members of the community can work together to develop policies that ensure an inclusive education for all students.