Mother educates school on epilepsy guide dogs after misunderstanding

April 17, 2014

When Suzy Cornish’s daughter Ashley, accompanied by her epilepsy guide dog, recently went to a Kitchener school to pick up the son of a family friend, she was met by a teacher who told her she couldn’t enter the school with a dog.

Ashley Cornish's epilepsy guide dog Flicka as a pup.
Ashley Cornish’s epilepsy guide dog Flicka as a pup.

Ashley explaining to the teacher that her dog, Flicka, was not a pet but an epilepsy guide dog (who was wearing a vest identifying her as such) that’s trained to respond to seizures made no difference to the teacher. Rules are rules, the teacher said.

When Suzy, who also lives with epilepsy, heard what happened, she paid the school a visit. She emphasizes that her intention was not to scold the teacher or get her into trouble but to advise the school’s staff members to take time to learn about epilepsy and why guide dogs play a crucial role in the lives of many people affected by epilepsy.

Seizure response dogs receive extensive training. If a person goes into seizure at home, the dogs are trained to press Lifeline buttons and even speed-dial buttons on cordless and mobile phones to alert emergency response teams of the situation. In public, the dogs will bark to attract attention, should their owner go into seizure.

The dogs are also trained to comfort people who have just had a seizure, snuggling against their owner to ease their anxiety.

What was frustrating for Suzy was the fact that the school has programs for students with special needs but somehow epilepsy slipped through the cracks of that definition.

Upon meeting with the teacher and principal, both admitted to Suzy they knew little about epilepsy. The school has students with physical disabilities, so Suzy asked if they’re discriminated against for using wheelchairs. The answer, of course, was no. Suzy explained that an epilepsy guide dog is an extension of a person who needs one just as much as a wheelchair is necessary for someone with a physical disability.

All in all, Suzy says the meeting was successful as the teacher and principal listened intently to her concerns and promises were made to discuss epilepsy guide dogs at the next staff meeting.

Suzy also recommended the teacher and principal contact Epilepsy Waterloo-Wellington to learn about seizure disorders and to take their learnings back to the school.

Given that an estimated one in every 100 Canadians is living with a seizure disorder, Suzy says it’s important for all schools to have protocols to create a safe environment for all students.

When Ashley was a high-school student, the principal at her school spent 16 hours with her and Suzy putting safety plans into place and learning about Ashley’s condition.

As for Flicka, the guide dog has had a positive impact on Ashley and everyone in her family in the two years she’s been in the Cornish household, Suzy says. Flicka not only helps Ashley out of seizures, she also alerts Suzy when a seizure has happened or is about to occur.

“I can go to sleep knowing that if (Ashley has a seizure) the dog is going to come into the room and wake me up,” she says.

Writer: Deron Hamel

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