The Stevens family--who garnered national media attention when their son's seizure dog was banned from accompanying him to school--testified tonight at a meeting of the Fairfax County school board. The board recently decided to allow Andrew to bring his dog to school for a 2-week trial period, but he must be accompanied by his father to make sure he is able to properly control the dog. The family was not confrontational or acrimonious, rather they came to stand up for their rights--and the rights of all Americans living with disabilities--under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Mission accomplished, for now.
Local D.C. media crews trailed the family, putting a spotlight on Andrew, a 12-year-old boy with a severe form of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, and his faithful, trained companion Alaya, a 5-year-old German Shepherd. Andrew appeared delighted while Alaya appeared nonplussed--despite the lights, cameras and literally nonstop action. Schools are busy places after hours, it turns out. Musicians filed past lugging encased instruments while several basketball teams played on the indoor courts.
Then businesslike board members filed into the auditorium to hear about Fairfax County school budgets (bad news, good news). It's hard to stay rapt during a budget presentation and some battle fatigue was showing, however when Andrew's father, Army Sgt. Angelo Stevens, took to the podium with his son and Alaya by his side, all eyes were locked on him.
Angelo calmly and persuasively presented his case and reflected on his son's tenacity and ability to pick himself up and move on despite tremendous setbacks with medications and seizures. Angelo told the hushed crowd in the school auditorium that Andrew was his hero and, he added, "Now he's yours."
Epilepsy Foundation national office staff was also on hand, along with the Epilepsy Foundation of Virginia's Dana Douglas, who has provided invaluable guidance and support to the family throughout their ordeal. Epilepsy Foundation legal counsel Patricia Dukes provided testimony on behalf of the Foundation. She clarified the role of service dogs, which is to stay with a person throughout a seizure to protect against injury and to also alert others so they can help the person having the seizure. She emphasized that the ADA provides protections that allow people with disabilities to enjoy full inclusion in society, including educational settings.
Patricia said, "We praise the school for taking the initial step of allowing Andrew and his dog into the schools, and we understand their concerns, however the law is clear that the school system cannot deny Andrew's service dog."
The story was aired on at least one local TV station tonight. I have more quotes from tonight that I will add in subsequent posts.
I can tell you with confidence, epilepsy's cause was represented tonight with eloquence, heartfelt and inspiring testimonials and one family's unwavering commitment to securing rights for their son and--more importantly--to making life easier for anyone else living with a disability who wants to have a service dog. The family has also established The Andrew Gordon Stevens Foundation to help other military families obtain service dogs.
Tonight was a great success. We raised awareness, educated the public about epilepsy and showed that with advocacy it is possible to make your voice heard. The Epilepsy Foundation is providing legal support for the Stevens family through its Jeanne A. Carpenter Epilepsy Legal Defense Fund.