Ehlena and Wonder the Service Dog’s Incredible Journey to the Supreme Court

Ehlena Fry and her service dog, Wonder.

This piece was originally published by the ACLU of Michigan.

The story behind the disability rights case being argued in the U.S. Supreme Court this Halloween is a story about the contrast between kindness and cruelty, a story about the right way and the wrong way to treat kids with disabilities.

The central characters in this story are an engaging, brave girl with cerebral palsy named Ehlena Fry and her trained service dog, Wonder. When Ehlena was adopted by a family in rural Brooklyn, Michigan, the community rallied around her. They contributed money and sponsored a basketball tournament at a local school to raise funds to purchase a service dog prescribed by Ehlena’s pediatrician. Thanks to this outpouring of kindness and generosity, Ehlena was able bring home a cute, hypoallergenic, certified service dog — a Goldendoodle named Wonder.

Ehlena’s pediatrician had prescribed a service dog to help Ehlena become independent. Wonder could open doors for Ehlena, turn on lights, pick up dropped items, help her remove her coat, and help her balance while she transferred from her walker onto a chair or the toilet. Ehlena and Wonder were beginning to bond when it was time to start kindergarten.

However, much to the Fry family’s surprise and dismay, the administration at the Napoleon Community Schools refused to allow Wonder at school. The school district insisted that Ehlena could receive an appropriate education without her service dog because a school aide could help Ehlena with all the tasks that Wonder performed.

Ehlena and Wonder

School officials and their attorney belittled the Frys when they explained that Ehlena needed the service dog to serve as a bridge to her independence, a fundamental right guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Frys explained that the officials could not violate her rights under the ADA and deny Ehlena a service dog just because they provided an aide. It would be like saying that a school had no obligation to build a wheelchair ramp so long as volunteers were willing to lift students who used wheelchairs up and down the stairs every day.

Once the ACLU agreed to represent Ehlena, the school district allowed Wonder in school for a “trial period,” but they did not allow Ehlena to use him as a service dog. In fact, Wonder was relegated to the back of the classroom and could not accompany Ehlena to recess, lunch, and other activities. Then, at the end of the school year, the district said Wonder could not return in the fall.

Even after the U.S. Department of Education determined that the Napoleon School District had violated Ehlena’s rights under the ADA, it became clear to the family that the administration resented them and that neither Ehlena nor Wonder were welcomed in the school. Therefore, the family did what they thought was best for Ehlena: They found her another school.

And what a difference a school made.

Unlike her old school, the public elementary school in neighboring Manchester welcomed Ehlena and Wonder with open arms. Wonder could assist Ehlena anywhere in the school, and the principal and teachers used Wonder’s presence as a teaching moment to educate other elementary school students about disability rights. Wonder and Ehlena became heroes among the other students, and the school not only placed a photo of Wonder in the “staff” section of the yearbook, but it created a staff ID for the dog.

Wonder's school ID

Ehlena Fry and her family, including Wonder, will be at U.S. Supreme Court on Monday so that other kids with disabilities won’t have to experience the humiliation and discrimination Ehlena experienced in kindergarten. It is not only illegal but  cruel to make a student choose between her education and her independence. Rather, all students with disabilities should be treated with the kindness, dignity, and love that Ehlena received in Manchester.

Come Monday, the eight justices of the Supreme Court have the power to do just that for all students with disabilities across this nation.

To learn more about Ehlena’s case, click here.

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Anonymous

My concern, as a person with allergies and asthma, is what do you do about competing health issues. Hypoallergenic is not 100% allergen-free. I've asked my allergist countless times. I react to hypoallergenic dogs with allergies and asthma. Tricky situation.

Anonymous

Simple enough to put the children in separate classrooms.

Anonymous

They are not competing health issues. Without a seeing eye dog, a blind person cannot navigate their world independently. Without a seizure dog, a severe epilepsy patient risks severe injury or even death if they collapse in a dangerous place (i.e. crosswalk).... Your allergies do not compare to being disabled.

A runny nose is not the same thing as needing help to go to the bathroom during a critical stage in social development.

Anonymous

Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, for example, in a school classroom or at a homeless shelter, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility.

Anonymous

I support service animals 100% but there needs to be awareness that asthma, which is life threatening, needs to be respected as well! The idea of getting on a plane next to a service animal I am allergic to and having a severe asthma attack in the air is beyond frightening.

Pat

So proud of this amazing little girl and her family! So glad they found the Manchester schools - they treated Ehkena & Wonder as all schools should.

Anonymous

The principal of the first school must have been a cat person.

He clearly has many Cat-like personality trits

Anonymous

All the cats I have ever had displayed a better personality than the principal; please don't insult cats!

Anonymous

The story is one of bravery on the part of the family, the child and supporting friends. The school who denied the student access to the service dog should be censured. The staff who forced the child to demonstrate how the service dog assisted her in the bathroom should be fired. All school staff should be ashamed of their behavior. Allergies? Well, maybe those with allergies should go to another school! Seems just sad that a child with a family who can rise above the challenges of a disability should be denied access to any way to circumvent the disability. Shame on that school! Shame on the adults in that school.

Chris

Why are you wasting time and money on this. The school is providing her the help she needs. The dog is not needed in any other way than to help her with physical things. The court will see the school offering her people to meet her needs and will rule in that favour.

If the dog provided for a mental state that a person could not fill then the ACLU would have a point. This is just a waste of donated money.

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