A disabled Coeur d'Alene man has filed a complaint against North Idaho College through the Disability Action Center Northwest, after he was initially denied using his service dog in class.
He also contends that NIC's requirements for approval of the dog were illegal under Americans with Disabilities Act.
"All I wanted to do was go to school. I didn't think I would have all these obstacles," said Cruz, 58, who had hoped to pursue paralegal studies.
Virgil Edwards, independent living advocate with the Disability Action Center, supports Cruz's complaint, submitted this week to the Office for Civil Rights in Seattle.
"What they're doing is blatantly against the law," Edwards said.
Cruz said he registered for the NIC fall semester and was granted financial aid, before he approached the school's Center for Educational Access about accommodating his disabilities.
He requested a special chair for his spinal stenosis. Cruz, a diabetic, also requested to use his service dog in class. The dog is trained to alert Cruz when his blood pressure is too low.
The CEA took from late July to the end of August to process his requests, Cruz said.
He was asked to provide several items to secure approval, he said. That included documentation proving he earned disability benefits and providing a new doctor's prescription for the service dog, though he already had one.
"It was dated 2009, and (staff) told me that that was too old," Cruz said.
Edwards said the school's requests violate ADA requirements. According to federal law, which can be read at www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm, it is illegal for staff to ask about an individual's disability, require medical documentation or training documentation for a service dog.
"They can't ask for documentation. And they not only asked for documentation, but when they got it, they said it was old," Edwards said.
Staff is only allowed to ask two specific questions about a service animal, Edwards added: Whether it is a service animal required for a disability, and if so, what service it provides.
"That's it," Edwards said. "Some feel it's unfair, I could have a pet and say it's a service animal, I could say it provides whatever, and that's as far as a person can ask. That's where I think a lot of people have issues, is how do you prove that. Well, you don't have to."
The doctor's prescription wasn't enough anyway, Cruz said.
The Friday before classes started, CEA Director Sharon Bullock informed him that the school determined the animal was a companion animal, and could not come to class.
That's not a decision the institution can make, Edwards said.
"You can't make that decision over a doctor," he said.
Bullock did notify Cruz the following Monday afternoon that the dog was approved after all, after necessary information had been obtained from his doctor.
But Cruz had already been dropped from his morning class, after missing his first day. He didn't attend because he couldn't bring his service dog, he said.
"It's like telling somebody to leave their wheelchair and come to school," he said.
Cruz promptly withdrew from NIC, to avoid complications with financial aid.
Wary of returning to NIC, he hopes to see the school fined and Bullock fired, he said.
"I don't feel comfortable going back if she's still there," he said, adding that at one point she said Cruz was "advocating myself out of NIC" with his accommodation requests.
NIC spokeswoman Stacy Hudson said the school's disability support services are in accordance with the federal disabilities act.
Cruz "was granted the accommodations he requested, after presenting the appropriate documentation required, per NIC policy," Hudson stated.
Privacy restrictions prevent her from commenting more on Cruz's situation.
Bullock was out of the office until next week.
The time it takes NIC to grant special accommodation for disabled students, Hudson added, depends on how long it takes students to provide documentation verifying the disability, "and whether the accommodation requested requires additional documentation."
Edwards said he expects the OCR will soon investigate the matter.
He hopes to see the NIC staff better educated on ADA regulations as a result, he said.
"There are reasons the ADA has laws out there, to make sure people with disabilities don't have to go through what people like Tony went through," he said.