Durban - As the mother of seven-year-old Conrad, Shelley Ann Foot knows how much extra work is needed in caring for an autistic child.
As part of her commitment to Conrad, Foot has given up her work as a reflexology therapist to ensure the well-being of her son. In fact, she has recently been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
Foot is renting a duplex at Bellamont Gardens in Umdloti, which has a back garden. With her husband often away due to work commitments, Foot and Conrad are often home alone.
Always on the lookout for new forms of therapies to help Conrad cope with autism, Foot learnt that the South African Guide Dogs Association is training dogs that could help Conrad counter the impact of autism, which is characterised by difficulty in social interactions and communication.
But when she approached Bellamont Gardens’ board of trustees, via her landlord, about Conrad using a therapeutic dog at her home, she was refused.
Unhappy with the decision, Foot approached the Equality Court.
In her affidavit submitted to the court, she described the rejection as being discriminatory as it marginalised her child, who suffers from a serious disability.
She also raised the issue that, while the trustees cited the rule from the sectional title conduct rules as their reason for rejecting her appeal, this was contradicted by the Code of Conduct handbook for Bellamont Gardens.
That particular clause reads: “Bellamont has no pet policy. Should exceptional, mitigating circumstances exist, application may be made to the trustees for consideration.”
Foot claims she had been reliably informed that the trustees never conducted a meeting to consider her request, as prescribed in the handbook.
“As a tenant who pays for the use and enjoyment of the rental property, I am fully entitled to be treated with the same dignity and respect as owners of apartments and (to enjoy) the benefits offered at the complex,” said Foot.
She has also offered to fence off the garden so that a dog could be contained there, but even that wasn’t enough to sway the opinion of the trustees.
“They (the trustees) have not taken into account the wellbeing and health of Conrad, therefore infringing on his constitutional rights, and it’s unfair discrimination on the grounds of disability,” she alleged.
The aggrieved mother is puzzled by the fact that many residents, including a trustee of the body corporate, have been allowed to keep cats on their premises.
“I have found the conduct of the trustees to be frustrating and traumatising,” she said.
Foot is not keen on the idea of moving as it would have an impact on her son.
“For autistic children, routine is important as they don’t deal well with change. Conrad has a daily routine that is designed to keep him calm; his anxiety levels are raised in unfamiliar circumstances,” she said.
The potential for her son having a “meltdown” is Foot’s biggest concern, as Conrad has, in the past, harmed himself during a tantrum.
Foot became interested in using dogs as part of her son’s treatment when she learnt that guide dogs help to bring down a child’s anxiety levels, prevent meltdowns and prevent them from wandering.
Foot has made an application to the South African Guide Dogs Association and has been placed on a waiting list, and will be subjected to an interview by the organisation.
In written correspondence, Maxine Gedie of the South African Guide Dogs Association, said: “Autism assist dogs are trained to help autistic children in a variety of ways. The dog is controlled on a lead by the parent… and also wears a harness that the child holds.”
Hillary Douglas of North Coast Property Management company, which tends to the daily affairs of the complex, confirmed a responding affidavit would be filed by Monday’s deadline.