A case headed to the Supreme Court could mean a big win for citizens with disablities and the service animals who support them.
While service animals are allowed to accompany their owners to most public places without major issues, one set of institutions that still have a lot of room to grow are our schools — a lesson the Fry family learned the hard way when their daughter’s service dog was banned from school premises.
Credit: ACLU via NPR
According to NPR, Ehlena Fry, who was born with cerebral palsy, got her service dog, Wonder, back in 2009. When she was five, Ehlena’s pediatrician recommended that the Frys look into a service dog, which could help Ehlena become more independent and self-sufficient. The family worked diligently to raise the whopping $13,000 required to get the dog that met Ehlena’s needs and finally, she and Wonder were brought together as a team.
Things with Wonder went great, until Ehlena started school. Officials at Ehlena’s school promptly banned Wonder, asserting that the school had fulfilled its requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by paying for an aide to help Ehlena get around physically during the day. Wonder, they said, was not necessary and not allowed.
Luckily for Ehlena, the Frys didn’t back down from the fight. Wonder didn’t just help Ehlena complete day-to-day activities, like getting around or transferring herself from her chair to the toilet (but he did those things too). Wonder helped Ehlena in another, even bigger way: He helped her develop a sense of independence and learn to do things for herself without help; something that was vital to her development as she learned to navigate life with her disability.
Stacy Fry, Ehlena’s mother, summed it up perfectly for NPR: “One of our whole goals in getting Wonder for her was that eventually, the more she was able to use Wonder and navigate her environment, that she would need the aide less and less.”
Though Ehlena’s school eventually agreed to a 30-day trial with Wonder, they didn’t really commit to the experience. During the trial, the Frys say Wonder wasn’t allowed in the classroom or cafeteria with Ehlena. What’s more, during the trial, Ehlena was forced to demonstrate how Wonder helped her — including going through the bathroom transfer while teachers watched, which her mother says was a traumatic experience (as you might imagine).
After the trial period was over, Ehlena’s school reinstituted the Wonder ban and the Frys knew that wasn’t the school for their daughter. They pulled her out and home-schooled her until they could enroll her in a new school that would welcome Wonder.
And when they found that school, it was a match made in heaven. Wonder became a part of the school family, even appearing in the yearbook and getting his own ID card.
After the experience with the first school, the Frys sued the district under the Americans with Disabilities Act and now their case is set to be heard by the Supreme Court.
Ehlena and Wonder will both be there when the Supreme Court justices hear their case. Ehlena is 12 now and, after seven years of dutiful service, Wonder has retired to live like a regular dog. In their time together, though, he did exactly what he was intended to do and taught Ehlena how to function more independently.
"He helped her bridge that gap," Ehlena's mother told NPR. "Working with him helped her to learn how to not need him as much."
Now, here’s hoping that Ehlena and Wonder win their case and help make things easier for the next generation of differently abled children and their service dogs to do the work they need to do.