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Landmark service dog ruling favours teacher

December 6, 2016 ​​Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief
After the Alberta Human Rights Commission ruled in her favour regarding the use of service dogs in the workplace, teacher Gail Lidkea said she hopes the decision brings about positive change.

Human rights commission finds school board discriminated against teacher

An Edmonton teacher has been awarded $15,000 after the Alberta Human Rights Commission ruled that her employer did not adequately accommodate her after she began using a service dog.

The commission found that the Edmonton Public School Board discriminated against teacher Gail Lidkea after she began bringing a service dog to school. While Lidkea, who is hearing impaired, was allowed to bring her dog to her workplace at the Alberta School for the Deaf, the dog’s presence resulted in her being assigned a room in a remote part of the school. Her dog’s movements were also restricted.

The commission found that the room provided to Lidkea for the purposes of teaching was too small for her classes as well as for the dog. It also found that the classroom relocation and restrictions on the dog’s movements had an adverse impact on the teacher.

As a result, the commission found that the school board did not adequately explore all of the options available for accommodating Lidkea and failed to accommodate her disability to the point of undue hardship, which amounted to discrimination on the board’s part.

Lidkea said she’s happy with the decision.

“It’s important we try to address needs, if possible,” Lidkea said. “I hope this decision will serve a higher purpose and bring positive change for someone else.”

In a written statement to the ATA News, the school board stated that it respects the tribunal’s decision.

“Our district places a high value on providing welcoming, high-quality learning and working environments that are inclusive and respectful of everyone,” read the statement. “We are always learning and striving to improve in everything we do.”


Precedent setting

The decision is among the first in Canada to find discrimination related to an employee’s use of a service dog at work. It brings to a close an issue that began nearly seven years ago, when Lidkea received a service dog named Widget from the Lions Foundation of Canada.

Lidkea, who testified that she had experienced a deterioration in her hearing ability prior to getting the dog, used the animal to alert her to noises such as fire alarms or someone knocking on her classroom door and to provide an enhanced sense of well-being and security. Soon after Lidkea first took possession of the dog in the fall of 2009, other employees at the school where she worked expressed concerns about the dog’s impact on the health of students and at least one other staff member.

By the end of her first week at school with the dog, Lidkea was ordered not to bring it to school and was subsequently placed on a paid leave of absence while the board investigated the situation. Later, Lidkea was allowed to return to school with the dog, but she was removed from her teaching assignment and reassigned to a classroom in a remote area of the school. The dog’s movements were also restricted to keep it away from the rest of the students, staff and school.

The room assignment continued into the next two school years until Lidkea left the school in 2011/12.

During the tribunal hearing, the school board argued that the service dog amounted to a “preference” and that Lidkea did not have a physical reliance on the dog because she had previously taught without a service dog and because other teachers with hearing loss did not use service dogs. The board also argued that it had provided reasonable accommodation under the circumstances in an attempt to balance Lidkea’s rights with those of students and other staff members.

The Alberta Teachers’ Association provided representation for Lidkea both in meetings with the school board and before the human rights commission. ATA staff officer Lisa Everitt managed the case for part of the time while it was active.

“This is an incredibly important win for the precedent it establishes,” Everitt said. “We now have a clear decision on the rights of teachers and other employees to use service animals in their workplace without discrimination.”

Editor’s note: Gail Lidkea died Sunday, Nov. 27 after an extended illness.


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