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Wonder in the Classroom

Jessie Rossman,
ACLU of Michigan
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April 23, 2010

For some parents, the first time their children begin dressing themselves is a stressful, embarrassing or frustrating experience. After all, how exactly do you explain to a kindergartner that a tutu, moccasins and a bathing suit just won’t cut it in the midst of a Michigan winter? But for Stacy Fry, the day her 6-year-old daughter Elhena shooed her out of her room so that she could dress herself was one of her proudest moments.

Elhena has cerebral palsy, and for years she has been unable to perform on her own many of the day-to-day functions that we take for granted. She could not open doors, turn on lights or even go to the bathroom without assistance. But things began to change in October when she was partnered with Wonder, a specially trained, certified mobility assistance dog. Since Wonder came along, Elhena has continued to become more and more self-reliant.

In order to cultivate this bond, it is critical that Elhena and Wonder work together throughout the entire day. It was therefore very disruptive when Elhena’s school initially prohibited Wonder from joining her in the classroom. Over the past few months, the ACLU of Michigan advocated on behalf of the Frys (PDF) to gain access to the classroom for Wonder. Last week, Wonder finally accompanied Elhena to school. As Stacy explained, allowing Wonder and Elhena to continue their work together uninterrupted will help her daughter “become more confident and independent.”

As ACLU attorneys, we often take cases that enable our clients to regain their voice and to be heard in a meaningful way. This is one of my favorite parts of my job. In this instance, however, I feel privileged to have participated in something that went even further. For 20 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act has held out the promise that individuals with disabilities are guaranteed the same rights and access as everyone else. As noted by the National Council on Disability in their 2007 report to the White House (PDF) discussing the implementation of the ADA, the Act’s goal of promoting full community participation can only be achieved by “eliminating the perception that people with disability are a wholly separate group that exists functionally, practically and conceptually apart from the rest of the population.” Enabling students with disabilities to exercise their independence and remain in a general school setting is at the core of the ADA’s purpose, as students like Elhena teach all the other children in the classroom that individuals with disabilities can, and do, live lives that are completely integrated with the rest of the population.

In this way, allowing Wonder to accompany Elhena to school is not just about this moment. It is not just about this week, or even her entire kindergarten experience. Elhena’s relationship with Wonder, the autonomy that he allows her to gain, the power that he allows her to wield over her own life, will benefit her well beyond the school house doors. It is not an exaggeration to say that Elhena’s growing self-sufficiency will have a significant impact on the rest of her life. And so I take great pride in the fact that the ACLU could be a part of getting Wonder into the classroom. Even if it means that Elhena’s self-selected outfit may soon include a tutu.