11/11/2016 07:47 EST | Updated 11/11/2016 07:53 EST

Do Allergies At School Take Priority Over A Service Dog?


Should a teacher bring her service dog to school?

In Alberta, recently, a teacher for deaf students who is herself deaf, was prevented from bringing her service dog with her into the classroom where she normally teaches. She was re-assigned to a smaller classroom and not allowed to bring the animal into the office or to school functions.

The reason she was given by the school for excluding the service dog was that there were others in the school who are allergic to dogs. The instructions that came with the well-trained dog were that it should not be left unattended for longer than three hours. Besides, leaving the dog at home would defeat its purpose. The teacher would not leave the dog at home - because she needed its service.

There is no doubt that allergies are real and that they can, indeed, be life-threatening. Some children and adults cannot visit the homes of people who keep pets because they would become ill as soon as they walked through the door. These people need to be alerted to situations where they are likely to encounter things that could trigger their allergies.

Schools try reasonably hard to protect vulnerable members of their population. But how far should they go? In Ontario a while ago, a woman whose son was allergic to oak trees asked the city to cut down all the oaks he would encounter between his home and the school he attends. The city declined to fulfill the request.

Many, if not most schools forbid students and staff from bringing peanuts, peanut butter, nuts or nut products. And quite a few schools forbid latex balloons and gloves -- all because of allergies or possible allergies.

I have heard very angry people claiming that their picky children will starve if they can't have peanut butter. I have heard others say that the food bank only had peanut butter on its shelves this week. Peanut butter is not trivial, and neither are service dogs. However, we can see that to get to a place where the least harm is done, we need to look very closely at the facts. We cannot decide that one solution can fit every situation.

If a child in the deaf teacher's school has an allergy to dogs, is he or she kept separate from others who have pets at home and may have animal dander on their clothing? If not, why not? How does the school normally deal with allergens? Are they taking measures because they are concerned about an actual or a potential problem?

Discrimination is an odd thing. It often happens when people have the best of intentions. No one wants to make a person feel bad, but the actions they take, which they believe are in the best interests of everyone, can result in unfair treatment of someone. Rights will often come into collision with one another. Working out how best to balance this is not an easy job, but it must be done.

Did anyone find out whether the people with allergies to animals would, in fact, be likely to encounter the teacher's dog during their day-to-day activities? Did anyone ask the nature of the allergies, or if in fact, there were any people in the school community who suffered from them?

Did anyone ask the teacher what services the dog provided for her and if there could be another way of providing some of these services for a short duration while she moved through the location of those with the allergies?

There are no rights that always win out over other rights. Both those with allergies and those in need of service animals are human beings with particular needs, and the right to be safe. But, each need must be looked at in its context, and each person's dignity must be respected.

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