You can’t help but smile when you see the pride on Ehlena’s face as she instructs her service dog, Wonder, to open a door or help her take off her coat.
While Ehlena takes great pride in Wonder, her parents, Stacy and Brent Fry, marvel at all that Ehlena herself has accomplished.
With Wonder’s assistance, Ehlena’s self-confidence and independence have flourished despite her cerebral palsy.
It’s been nearly one year since we first blogged about Ehlena. Back in October 2009, Ehlena and her family brought Wonder home to Michigan after several weeks of training. Ehlena was eager to take Wonder to class with her, but her school district wouldn’t allow it.
The ACLU of Michigan intervened, and in April 2010 Ehlena’s school district agreed to allow Wonder to accompany her through the end of the school year.
However, the victory was short-lived. The school district is again refusing to allow Wonder into class, maintaining that because Ehlena herself is not Wonder’s “handler,” he cannot be a service dog.
Currently, Wonder outweighs Elena by nearly 50 pounds and like many small children who rely on service dogs, Ehlena needs a “handler” to assist her.
While Ehlena is responsible for commanding Wonder, her mother Stacy has a limited role of physically managing Wonder until Ehlena is older.
Recently, federal regulations related to service animals were corrected making it clear that a service animal’s handler is not necessarily the individual with a disability.
We hope this change in the regulations will also make a difference for Ehlena.
The change in the regulations was a victory for all those who utilize service dogs but may not be able to totally control the service animal themselves for various reasons," said Ehlena' mother. "During our long and continuous journey, this is a step in the right direction, not only for our daughter’s independence and inclusion, but all those affected by similar situations."
On the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act into law, we filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of Ehlena. To date, Wonder is still not allowed in the classroom.
The investigation is still pending, but we hope Wonder will be in the classroom soon.
By Gayle Rosen, ACLU of Michigan cooperating attorney