Assistance dog helped give teacher her independance and confidence back

Fiona Airey from Kent has recently become a Head Teacher for the first time because of the support from her assistance dog, Verlin.

Fiona was diagnosed with a genetic condition Ehlers Danlos Syndrome when she was in her 30s. She had grown up thinking she was ‘double jointed’, but as her joints began to dislocate more often and pain became unbearable she was finally diagnosed and all the symptoms made sense.

She explains: “By the time I was diagnosed, the pain and the symptoms were as bad as ever and I could no longer walk properly. By 2001 I had started my career in teaching and I was very nervous about walking around school where I worked as a teacher, or anywhere with lots of people out of fear of being bumped and hurt.

“I would walk next to a wall or with someone, like my sister, next to me as I was so concerned my shoulder would dislocate if it was knocked. The pain levels were huge and the world just became smaller and smaller.”

Fiona’s family, friends and colleagues watched as Fiona became less independent due to her condition, no longer able to leave the house without someone with her to help her feel safe.

Karen, Fiona’s sister said: “Fiona had got to the stage where she wouldn’t even go into town or out without me, because she felt safer if I was with her and I gave her that sense of security. She’s my sister so of course it was absolutely fine, but it was worrying that if I couldn’t go with her and it was something she wanted to do then she would miss out on it. It was taking her independence away.”

Life for the Fiona blossomed when she was partnered with assistance dog Verlin, provided by national assistance dog charity Canine Partners, in September 2014.

Fiona has recently become a Head Teacher for the first time, thanks for the support of Verlin. She added: “I feel alive again as I have a future!”

This World Teacher Day (5 October 2021), Canine Partners is celebrating how assistance dogs like Verlin can transform the lives of adults with disabilities so that they can live full and active lives with their families and in the workplace. For Fiona, having Verlin means she has been able to be a successful deputy Head Teacher and she has just accepted her new role as a Head Teacher at another primary school.

Lenny, Fiona’s previous Head Teacher and colleague, describes Fiona as a ‘brilliant Deputy Head’ who has enabled the school to flourish.

“I think it’s inspirational for the children to see that Fiona works here full time, and she’s the first one in and the last one out. She’s able to do that because of Verlin,” says Lenny. “She’s happier, she’s more reassured and she’s more comfortable, which impacts positively on her work and, in turn, impacts positively on the education of over 420 children.”