Erin Doan of Listowel, Ont., learned in March that her family could not adopt a dog from Kismutt Rescue because her nine-year-old son has autism.
On Wednesday, the family filed a lawsuit with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario against the nonprofit.
“This is not just a complaint on behalf of my son, but it is a complaint on behalf of the entire autism community as well as their families,” said Doan, who was heartbroken to learn that St. Marys Area Dog Rescue has a general policy that prohibits autistic families from adopting dogs.
Erin’s son Henry is non-verbal and recently started communicating using special software installed on an iPad. One of the first things he asked for was a dog, she said.
“Making a one-size-fits-all policy…generally is not appropriate,” she said. “[People with autism] deserve the love of an animal just like anyone else.”
At the time, Kismutt Rescue wrote a lengthy Facebook post about its policy, detailing two separate occasions when the organization adopted a dog from a family that had an autistic child: In one case, a child bit a dog. In the other, a child hit a dog with a fan.
“After the second incident with the second dog, I have established a policy that NO dogs will be adopted into homes with autistic children,” the post read.
He goes on to suggest that 99% of students with autism “have temper tantrums and can be aggressive and violent.”
Read the whole post of Rescue of Kismutt:
“It’s not only incorrect, but it’s based on junk science,” Autism Ontario’s Michael Cnudde said of the comment in the nonprofit’s post.
“The reality of the situation is that the risk of violent behavior for people on the spectrum is no different than that of the general population.”
Cnudde is pleased that Doan filed the human rights complaint and called Kismutt’s policy discriminatory and ableist (amounting to prejudice against people with disabilities).
Doan’s attorney, Christopher Achkar of Toronto, also commented on the role of the human rights tribunal.
“The job of the court is to … assess whether Erin and her son were treated negatively because of her son’s disability or perceived disability.”
A business or organization has the right to refuse service to someone, but not if the reason is protected by the human rights code, Achkar said.
“Any business can decide whether its duty to accommodate someone is causing it undue hardship or too much for that business to handle,” he added.
However, Kismutt Rescue never met Doan’s son and had no conversation about accommodation.
“We will hopefully have discussions about what a resolution might look like,” Achkar said.
If that doesn’t work and mediation also fails, the case will go to trial, he said.
It’s not often that the court asks an organization to change its policy, but it has done so in the past, and there’s a good chance it will in this case, Achkar said.
A family adopts a dog from another shelter
The Doan family ended up adopting a dog from another nonprofit, Misfits Rescue, in Wingham.
“The owner of the rescue, his brother has autism and he’s helping him rescue,” Erin said. “Henry and Chico get along really well. It’s wonderful. He was so excited.
“The day he got home, he was typing on his interlocutor. ‘I have a dog’ and ‘Chico. Chico.’ He can actually verbalize the name.”
Erin hopes her human rights complaint will prompt a different approach than Kismutt’s.
“The best turnout would be to realize and admit that while the intentions were good, it was done the wrong way.”
CBC News contacted Kismutt Rescue on Tuesday, but had not yet received a response at the time of publication.