“I’ve been thinking about getting my dog one of those vests so I can take him everywhere!”
The other day, a guy approached me while I was working and said, “I’ve been looking into getting one of those therapy dogs like you got there. I figure I can buy one somewhere, then I can have a buddy with me wherever I go just like you!”
Yeah, that actually happened. I bit my tongue and refrained from responding with, “Would you like an injured spinal cord to take with you everywhere you go, just like me, too?”
Reason #1 why that’s not funny:
The goofball that stuck his foot in his mouth – let’s call him Frank – was uneducated about the type of dog I have. Don’t worry; I cleared that up. In case you don’t know, therapy dogs are not covered by the ADA, and neither is the desire to “have a buddy.”
I hate to play the disability card, but…
I’m going to. Did you know that Service Animals are legally considered assistive devices, and that’s why they’re allowed in public places? Do you know what qualifies people for assistive devices? Disabilities. The law that allows people with disabilities to use dogs for help isn’t meant to be abused by people who don’t need it.
Reason #2 why that’s not funny:
People put a lot of time, money, and energy into being absolutely sure that Service Dogs are fit for their jobs. Even in organizations that breed for specific traits, often less than half of them are placed as workers (fear not, the rest have loving homes, and are certified as Therapy Dogs much of the time). When Frank bypasses all of the hard work and slaps a vest on an untrained dog, he compromises the credibility of the legitimate Service Dog community and makes the lives of those of us who rely on our dogs more difficult; especially those with invisible or less obvious disabilities. Frank and his untrained dog make everyone suspicious of a person who isn’t blind or in a wheelchair.
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
A couple of weeks ago, I was researching pet travel and I saw an article on how to get your pet dog onto airplanes with you under the guise of being an emotional support animal. There’s actually a consulting company dedicated to gaming the system; they charge people for advice on how to obtain medical justification, and they even endorse making up symptoms. (Emotional support animals aren’t covered under the ADA; however, the Air Carriers Act makes a special provision for them, so with the right medical documentation, they can fly in the cabin.)
Really? That’s worse than parking your Porsche in an accessible spot without a permit. In this case, Frank’s not necessarily creating a physical barrier, but he has the potential to create a social barrier, or even a legal one if he causes too much inconvenience for the wrong person or company. I was recently on a flight with a woman who had a medium sized dog in a travel crate a row ahead of Bright, Bryan, and me. It barked for the whole flight. Since she was in first class, no one could see her dog and Bryan and I were mortified at the idea that someone might think it was Bright.
One school of thought would suggest that we tighten up the rules around identification for Service Dogs, but this is a really complicated issue. In order to protect the privacy and dignity of people with disabilities, business owners can’t ask for detailed information about one’s disability. As far as the ADA is concerned, a statement from the handler that their dog is, in fact, a service dog is proof enough. As a person with a disability, I’d like to keep it that way; I answer enough questions about my “condition,” “injury,” or “disease,” as it’s called by prying strangers on any given day. Additionally, the ability of business owners to ask for information about a person’s disability opens the door to discrimination, which we have plenty of to begin with.
So, what’s the answer?
Integrity. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. When a person lies about having a disadvantage in order to benefit from whatever small perk may be associated with it, it diminishes the gravity of the situation for someone who has no choice. For example, people who pretend to be homeless and beg on freeway entrance corners: if I could trust that every person looking for a meal was really in need, I’d buy several meals a day. Unfortunately, I’ve heard too many reports of posers who put on some dirty clothes for an afternoon, collect a bunch of cash, and then hop into their sports cars and drive to their suburban parents’ homes where they live and play XBOX for free in the basements.
So keep this in mind, and hold people you know accountable: The actions of a few can make life more difficult for many. Don’t add insult to injury by taking advantage of the system that’s in place to protect us.
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