CNIB commends the Ontario Ministry of Education for providing guidance to school boards on their policies regarding service animals. We also welcome the opportunity to provide detailed comment on the draft policy to ensure it adequately supports the existing rights of guide dog handlers and highlights the difference between service animals and guide dogs.
As it currently stands, the draft policy does not adequately differentiate between guide dogs and service animals and their respective levels of protection under law. As defined under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation:
80.45(3) “guide dog” means a guide dog as defined in section 1 of the Blind Persons’ Rights Act; (“chien-guide”) “service animal” means an animal described in subsection (4); (“animal d’assistance”)
Similarly, British Columbia distinguishes between service animals and guide dogs in the Guide Dog and Service Dog Act, as well Nova Scotia's Blind Persons' Rights Act and the Service Dog Act being separate pieces of legislation.
For many years, guide dog handlers in Ontario have been protected from discrimination and granted access to public spaces, including schools, under the Blind Persons' Rights Act (BPRA):
Guide dogs permitted in places to which public admitted
2. (1) No person, directly or indirectly, alone or with another, by himself, herself or itself or by the interposition of another, shall,
(a) deny to any person the accommodation, services or facilities available in any place to which the public is customarily admitted; or
(b) discriminate against any person with respect to the accommodation, services or facilities available in any place to which the public is customarily admitted, or the charges for the use thereof, for the reason that he or she is a blind person accompanied by a guide dog. R.S.O. 1990, c. B.7, s. 2 (1).
For this reason, the school board policies on service animals need to reflect the difference between guide dogs and service animals, and the difference in legal rights between those two groups.
Draft policy recommendations:
- "allow students to be accompanied by service animals in school when doing so would be an appropriate accommodation to support students’ learning needs, and would meet the school boards’ duty to accommodate students with disabilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code (the “Code”);"
- Reference to the Blind Persons' Rights Act and guide dogs should be included.
- "make determinations on whether to approve requests for a service animal on a case-by-case basis, based on the individual needs of each student;"
- This is not applicable to students who are guide dog handlers, as they already have an existing right to attend school accompanied by their guide dog under the provisions of the BPRA. We recommend that as part of the application process, schools request proof that the guide dog is from an accredited facility listed under the BPRA. If the student can confirm their dog is a registered guide dog from an accredited facility, then the right for the student to attend school with their dog is automatic under law – it does not need to be decided by the school board on a case-by-case basis.
- The draft policy currently states that "However, this memorandum does not apply to licensed child-care providers, including those operating on the premises of publicly funded schools."
- While child-care facilities operating in schools are beyond the scope of the policy, it is important to note that guide dog handlers have an existing right to enter licensed child-care provider premises that are open to the public.
- Guide Dog definition – "The term “service animal” refers to…" should have an equivalent paragraph that refers to the legal definition of a "guide dog" and the relevant supporting legislation.
- Service Animal definition – In this section, there should be an accompanying definition of "guide dog". There should be an explicit mention that guide dog handlers are protected under law. Once the school is satisfied that the guide dog is from an accredited facility, board approval is automatic in order to meet its obligations under the BPRA. We support the recommendation of permitting service animals in training within the school system. Guide dogs in training should be included.
- Components of school board policies on service animals. Communication Plan: The communication plan should cover how the school board will educate students and staff about service animal and guide dog etiquette as well as how it will handle and resolve conflicting needs (i.e. allergies, religious/cultural beliefs pertaining to animals). Any communication informing the school community of the presence of a service animal or guide dog should respect the privacy of the student and state the type of animal present; it should not include the disability/condition the animal is for or name the student.
Process: Most guide dog schools in North America require a handler to be 18 (16 in Quebec) or older. If a student has a guide dog, school board approval is not required – guide dog handlers already have the right to enter schools under the BPRA). Therefore, an application process is not necessary. As per the BPRA: "(3) Nothing in this section shall be construed to entitle a blind person to require any service, facility or accommodation in respect of a guide dog other than the right to be accompanied by the guide dog. R.S.O. 1990, c. B.7, s. 2 (3)."
Training: In addition to the above recommendations, all students and staff should be trained on service animal and guide dog etiquette.
Review of School Board Service Animal Policies and Data Collection: Service animal and guide dog organizations should be consulted to identify and mitigate any unforeseen issues with the policy, and provide constructive suggestions based on their expertise.
- The draft policy does not include information about accommodating teachers, school staff, parents and guests who have service animals or guide dogs. While similar, the process for these groups is likely to be different from the process for students. A policy for how the school would deal with guests entering the school accompanied by a service animal or guide dog needs to be developed, as this process would look very different from people within the school system with service animals.
- CNIB would welcome an opportunity to meet with the Ontario Ministry of Education or individual school boards to discuss any of these considerations for guide dog accommodation policies.