OUR RIGHTS AS DISABLED PEOPLE CAN NEVER BE TAKEN FOR GRANTED
By Heidi Johnson-Wright
Rights given should never be taken as a given.
Just because the law protects us doesn’t mean those protections will always be respected. Not even by allegedly respectable entities such as school districts.
Take Anthony Merchante, for example. Anthony is a cute little 7-year old boy. He has more challenges to deal with, though, then the average 7 year old. He has cerebral palsy, spastic paralysis and a seizure disorder. He cannot speak, and he uses a wheelchair for mobility.
Because Anthony is a person with a disability, he has rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. One of those rights is the use of a service dog. And it just so happens that a bright, dedicated, professionally trained dog came into his life. The Staffordshire terrier, named Stevie, alerts caregivers when Anthony needs help.
Stevie knows when Anthony needs help stabilizing his head to keep his airway open. The dog steps onto Anthony’s wheelchair and lays across his lap. The dog alerts humans by stepping on a mat with a sensor should Anthony have a medical emergency, such as a seizure. Stevie’s vest carries medical supplies and emergency instructions for Anthony’s human caregivers.
Not only is Stevie an essential part of Anthony’s daily care, but he’s a gentleman, too. He stays at Anthony’s side, is never disruptive, doesn’t beg for food or bother anyone.
Nevertheless, Broward County, FL school administrators decided, for whatever reason, they did not like Stevie. Didn’t want him in Anthony’s school, even though the dog has never misbehaved.
Anthony’s mother tried for two years to convince the school district that Stevie is an essential part of Anthony’s life. She tried to make them see that, without the service dog, her son could not get the education he is entitled to.
The school district put up roadblocks. Administrators insisted that Stevie receive vaccinations not required of other dogs. They required Anthony’s mom to purchase expensive liability insurance and insisted she pay a handler to accompany the dog during the school day. The district even contended that Anthony didn’t need Stevie. That school staff could do all the things Stevie does.
So Anthony’s mom took the school district to court. In fact, a friend and colleague of mine – Matthew Dietz, represented her and her son. Dietz told the court that the district’s burdensome requirements amounted to “an impossible barrier,” and violated the ADA.
Ultimately, the judge agreed, ruling that is was reasonable for Stevie to accompany Anthony during the school day, “in the same way a school would assist a non-disabled child to use the restroom, or assist a diabetic child with her insulin pump, or assist a physically disabled child employ her motorized wheelchair.”
The school district can no longer separate Anthony from his service dog, and cannot impose the insurance and handler requirements on him.
Now a seven-year old boy – like the other seven year olds -- can focus on math and spelling and social studies. He doesn’t have to worry that the service dog who enables him to do these things will be taken away. That the rights he is guaranteed under federal civil rights law will be violated by a school district that refuses to acknowledge these rights.
It’s been a quarter century since the passage of the ADA. But we must never let our guard down.
Follow Heidi Johnson-Wright's acclaimed blog at: http://earthboundtomboy.blogspot.com