It’s been a long uphill battle for people with disabilities to earn the rights to take their service dogs with them into classes, jobs, and recreational spaces like restaurants, but the movement scored a big win a few weeks ago when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Elhena Fry and her service dog, Wonder.
The case, Fry v. Napoleon, centered around the state of Michigan’s obligations to supply a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that complied with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The school in Michigan argued that Elhena, who suffers from severe cerebral palsy, could not bring her service dog Wonder into her school because a human aid could provide all the attention and extra help she needed, as per her Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Elhena Fry’s family felt that the person who was aiding her was not, in fact, providing enough support to fulfill the obligations of the school set forth by the IDEA and consulted the ACLU for further action. The family sued the school and the principal for emotional damages for monetary compensation.
In an 8-0 majority with Thomas and Alito writing concurrences, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Fry family. As written on SCOTUSblog, “Exhaustion of the administrative procedures established by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is unnecessary when the gravamen of the plaintiff’s suit is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee of a “free appropriate public education.’”
This is a huge victory for people with disabilities who use service animals for improved mobility. FAPE cases continue to make their way to the Supreme Court as education budgets shrivel, specifically for students with disabilities, but cases like Elhena’s ensure that the most vulnerable students have access to the best public education experience possible. With Wonder by her side, Elhena can make friends more easily, visit the bathroom on her own, and navigate the physical terrain of the school building.
The public has rallied around the cause, praising and supporting people with disabilities across social media. In December, Lowes made headlines by hiring a US Air Force Veteran and his service dog to work in their store. After his discharge, Clay Luthy started looking for a job that would be amenable to his sidekick, Charlotte, a yellow lab he’s had since she was a puppy. Lowes publically stated that Luthy was the best man for the job, and bringing his dog on board was a no-brainer.
The cause for service animals, however, is being hurt by those who take advantage of “service animal” loopholes for the sake of keeping personal pets. Most landlords who don’t allow for pets make exceptions for service animals to be more accommodating for people with disabilities. The easiest way people hide under the protection of service animals is by claiming their pets are “emotional support” animals. While it’s uncontested that animals are excellent companions for individuals suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, loss, etc., there is no legal classification for a “comfort animal,” whereas there are a lot of legal rights for animals that provide a service to those with severe physical limitations like blindness or neuromuscular problems.
Going forward, we need to encourage more protection for people who rely on service animals for independence and mobility. Service animals provide people with handicaps a freer, more “normal” life than they might otherwise have.