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In The Doghouse, and Deservedly So

Editor's Note: This editorial is reprinted with permission from the Guelph Mercury, July 9, 2004. *Image: University of New Brunswick main hall, which is a three story brick building with beautifully landscaped shrubs and grass.

It has been said the price of freedom is vigilance and that precept was clearly illustrated this week as the University of New Brunswick, under intense pressure, reversed a foolhardy and narrow-minded decision.

The university had barred a French-speaking student named Yvan Tessier from attending a five week English immersion program. Tessier is blind and uses a guide dog named Pavot to get around. The dog only responds to French commands, and reportedly understands about 50 in that language.

In a high-handed and totally unacceptable manner, the university told Tessier that he had to communicate with the dog in English only during the immersion program. School authorities told Tessier he had to sign an agreement accepting this stipulation as a condition of participation. Later, amid an avalanche of criticism, the university caved in.

It must be frustrating for the people who toil to build the university's stature and influence in the community and beyond. They undoubtedly work hard day in and day out to do just that, and then the school becomes known internationally in the space of a few hours, perhaps unfairly, as an institution that builds walls instead of bridges. It will take a long time to live that down. That is the consequence of a single, ill-considered, thoughtless and wholly wrong bureaucratic misjudgment.

The University of New Brunswick English immersion program is respected, considered a no nonsense exercise that produces excellent results. No doubt the people running it are justifiably proud of their academic success.

But in this blunt and clumsy ultimatum to a blind man they have over-reacted unconscionably. There is of course no way the tone or quality of the program could be compromised because a blind student tells his guide dog to ?sit? or ?stay? or ?go? in French. How could that possibly threaten anyone's opportunity to learn anything?

And of course there is no way this is the thin edge of some wedge, a creeping attack on the program that will see some other group demand similar concessions, with this cited as precedent. We are talking about a blind man uttering largely monosyllabic commands to a dog, for crying out loud.

Two questions beg. The first is, how did university authorities come to their initial ill-considered stance in the first place? The second is, would they have reversed that decision without the hue and cry that echoed around the world in the media, prompting public disgust?

Those are important questions, and not only from a human rights perspective, although that concern is paramount. There is also the safety aspect to be considered.

There is no way the dog could have been retrained to understand many English commands prior to Tessier attending the class. And even if the dog could have been taught a few English phrases, as university authorities suggested, why should Tessier have to do that? The man depends on the dog, which has already been rigorously trained, to be his eyes, and the last thing he wants is for the animal to somehow become confused. If other visually impaired people have acquiesced and taught their guide dogs a few English commands, as University of New Brunswick spokesperson Susan Mesheau said, they have probably done so grudgingly, and nervously.

Think about it. If you were blind and depended on a guide dog to keep you from stepping off a curb in front of a car, would you want to risk confusing that animal for the sake of some silly academic regulation?

Not likely.

Guelph resident Jean Little, who uses a guide dog, was understandably indignant when she heard about the controversy. She asked, "Why should he retrain his dog?"

At the University of Guelph Barry Wheeler, a student adviser at the school's Centre for Students with Disabilities, termed the New Brunswick initial decision "serious discrimination. They are in serious violation of his human rights."

The intent, structure and content of the English immersion program will not, essentially cannot, be jeopardized by a man giving commands to his dog.

Indeed, as Little remarked pithily, "no one else talks to the dog."

The only thing that has really been jeopardized here is the stature of the University of New Brunswick. Bad school. Bad, bad bad. Go sit in the corner, and stay. Stay.