The AODA does not yet have an education standard. Two committees are making recommendations about what an education standard should include. Our recent articles have considered how the education standards can build on requirements from the AODA’s existing standards. Now, we will explore new mandates that the education standards could create. One issue that an education standard should address is service animals in schools. Currently, students must ask their school boards if they can bring their service animals to school. Every school board must make its own service animal policy. A new standard is needed for service animals in schools.
Service animals are animals, typically dogs, trained to help people with disabilities maintain independence. They 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 specialized training to perform tasks, such as:
- Guiding a person around obstacles
- Warning a person about low blood sugar
- Protecting a person during 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
In addition, 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
Standard Needed for Service Animals in Schools
Under the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR), service animals are welcome in 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 students with service animals cannot automatically bring their animals to school with them. Instead, they must ask their school boards if they can bring the animal. School boards then make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
There are seventy-two school boards in Ontario. Currently, each school board must develop its own policy outlining the process families should follow when requesting the accommodation of service animals in schools. As a result, policies may differ widely. Students’ chances to bring service animals to school may depend not on their needs, but on where they live.
When school boards do not have strong policies for students with service animals, children may not receive the classroom accommodations they need. Moreover, students should have the same chance for this accommodation, no matter where they live. A province-wide policy in the education standard could solve this problem. This policy could provide clear guidelines for allowing service animals in schools. It could also offer guidance for situations where staff and students have conflicting accommodation needs. For instance, it could include ways to balance the needs of a service-animal handler and someone with severe allergies to animals.
Our next article will outline some best practices for interacting with service animals.