All Ehlena Fry and her service dog, Wonder, wanted was to be together, and now the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in their favor. The court ruled that the 13-year-old disabled girl and her family can pursue a lawsuit against a school that refused to allow the dog to accompany her to class.
Ehlena was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that severely limited what she could do physically. When the little girl was 5, her pediatrician recommended that she get a service dog to help her become more independent. The community around her home in Brooklyn, Michigan, worked to help her family come up with the $13,000 needed to get a dog, reports NPR. They contributed money and held a basketball tournament at a local school to raise funds so her family could bring home a well-trained, fluffy white goldendoodle named Wonder.
Wonder and Ehlena quickly bonded, reports the ACLU of Michigan, as the certified service dog helped the little girl gain her independence. He could turn on lights and open and close doors for her, pick up things that she dropped, and help her take off her coat. Wonder could help Ehlena balance as she moved from her walker onto a chair or a toilet seat. With his help, she was ready to start kindergarten.
And that's when the problems started. When Ehlena showed up with Wonder at school, she was told the dog was not permitted. School administrators said that a human aide could do all the things Wonder could do.
"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," Ehlena's mother, Stacy Fry, told NPR.
The school eventually agreed to a 30-day trial period during which Wonder was allowed in the classroom, but he wasn't permitted to sit with Ehlena or go with her to lunch or recess. After the 30 days, they returned to the no-dogs policy and the Fry family chose to homeschool Ehlena until they were able to transfer to another school in nearby Manchester, Michigan.
The experience this time was completely different: Wonder was allowed to sit with Ehlena in class and go with her to the cafeteria and playground. He even had his own schoolID card and photo in the yearbook.
"It was amazing, and they were so accepting," Ehlena's mom told NPR. "It was such a teaching tool, for the other kids."
A lawsuit for all kids with disabilities
Working with the ACLU of Michigan, the Frys sued the first school under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They sought damages for the emotional distress Ehlena suffered, but said the lawsuit was not about money. The goal is to help other children with service animals so they don't have the same negative experience.
The Frys case went to the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 31, and the court's 8-0 decision came down on Feb. 22.
The case wasn't so much about education as it was about her attempts to reach physical and emotional independence. The lower courts were focused on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) process, and steps they thought the family should take, but the high court decided that wasn't necessary. As USA Today explained:
"Nothing in the nature of the Frys’ suit suggests any implicit focus on the adequacy of (Ehlena's) education," Justice Elena Kagan wrote. "The Frys could have filed essentially the same complaint if a public library or theater had refused admittance to Wonder."
Even so, the 8-0 ruling leaves open the possibility that a lower federal court still could require exhaustion of the IDEA administrative process, depending on further fact-finding.
Ehlena and Wonder seen at the U.S. Supreme Court with her mother, Stacy, and ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael Steinberg. (Photo: ACLU of Michigan)
Ehlena and Wonder — who retired as a service dog after helping his friend gain her independence — were in Washington, D.C., as the case started. As a show of solidarity, they were met by friends and other service dogs on the steps of the Supreme Court.
The point of the case and gathering was clear: "Ehlena Fry and her family, including Wonder, will be at U.S. Supreme Court ... so that other kids with disabilities won’t have to experience the humiliation and discrimination Ehlena experienced in kindergarten," said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. "It is not only illegal, but it is cruel to make a student choose between her education and her independence. Rather, all students with disabilities should be treated with kindness, dignity and love that Ehlena received in Manchester. A win in the Supreme Court will help tear down barriers to independence for students with disabilities not only in Michigan, but throughout the country."
Service dogs and friends supporting Ehlena and Wonder at the Supreme Court! pic.twitter.com/lPqqnrkhoF— ACLU National (@ACLU) October 31, 2016
This story was first published in November 2016 and has been updated with more recent information.