Yesterday we had a blitz day with the service dogs, who worked a total of six hours and were being trained for two of those. It made me think, as it often does, of how we got here.
Many of you know that Ginny decided to be Honour’s service dog before we even knew there could be such a thing for kids with emotional disabilities. Ginny was really the catalyst for almost everything – the fact that she was alerting to and responding to specific behaviors pushed us to get a diagnosis change, giving us something more useful than the words that had been attached to Honour since toddlerhood, and Ginny brought Honour to a point where she could understand her own feelings and give them a name.
During that time, we went through a lot of factual and emotional searching, since we were very, very concerned that we not do anything wrong. We were considering, after all, using a very interesting object (a dog) in a very public way, one that would bring attention to both the family and Honour. We worked through hundreds of questions, but the most pernicious one always was (and I suspect always will be) “Are we doing this because we have no choice? Or are we doing this because we have a choice?” In other words, if she could in any way get along without a service dog, be it ever so unpleasant, whether it meant drugging her while she was still a growing child, whether it meant rearranging our entire lives as a family to avoid her triggers, did we have a responsibility to do so in order to not ever inconvenience anyone else or ever made anyone else take notice?
The advice out there on the web varies from useful to awful. More of it is incorrect or unhelpful than good, honestly. It’s an unfortunate fact that most service dog dialogue occurs because somebody has an axe to grind. Sometimes there’s perceived to be an epidemic of fake disabled people with fake service dogs and therefore there need to be tighter requirements on what dogs can be called service dogs (and the loudest voices in that complaint tend to be people with service dogs, believe it or not; sadly, the age-old “I’m more miserable than you, so you should stop complaining” argument doesn’t stop at that threshold). Other sources of information are only there to make money – any organization offering to certify, ID, or register a dog without having trained that dog or tested that dog is taking advantage of your fear that you might have to prove that your dog is a service dog – which is illegal.
Because there are so many unreliable voices out there, I wrote up a few simple rules that I am absolutely sure are correct. I don’t claim to be an authority on service dogs, but these things I DO know:
1) Please don’t presume to know whether or not someone has a disability. It’s not up to you.
The likelihood that any human would know enough, medically and legally, about every possible disability to be able to diagnose the correct one (or eliminate an incorrect one) on sight – or even with substantial experience with the disabled person – is incredibly small. The definition of disability has a lot to do with professional medical diagnoses, but it is a LEGAL term, not a medical one. And it’s a legal term with a very wide base and very broad applicability. If you see someone who is using assistance of any kind – a dog, a crutch, a helper, visible meds, whatever – no matter how else they may behave, no matter how “well” they seem, assume they have a legal disability. Don’t congratulate yourself on spotting a faker.
2) The ONLY applicable definition of disability is the ADA one.
There’s a service dog website that gets a lot of pageviews and claims to be an authority on what service dogs can be used for, but it gets this wildly (and illegally) wrong, especially when it comes to psychiatric service dogs. It tries to argue that people with mental illness do not qualify for a service dog unless they have a “severe” mental illness, or that there’s a legal difference between an “impairment” and a “disability.” That’s absolute hogwash.
If your condition is, OR if its effects will be, OR if people around you assume its effects will be, long-term, and if one or more major life activities are substantially impacted, then you are disabled. Period. The EEOC has a very useful, and very long, explanation of exactly what a disability is, and if you ever have a question that’s the place to go. Not anywhere else.
3) There are no gradations of disability. There’s not a difference between severe and mild, between extremely limiting and substantially limiting.
When someone asks me about Honour, I say the words “severe OCD” because OCD is a disorder that’s been used as a joke for years. It’s easier to say that than to say “This is not the sitcom situation where somebody really likes a clean toilet; this is a human being who cannot touch you and cannot touch anything she thinks you may have touched, and, if something about you strikes her a certain way, she can’t touch or use anything you’ve looked at. She’s trying as hard as she can to not dwell on whether you’ve THOUGHT about that object, because if she faces that fact she can’t touch or use it either.”
But “severe” is not a diagnosis. She doesn’t need those words added on to make it a disability. Either you’re protected by the ADA or you are not; there’s no degrees.
4) There’s no reward for having a disability and refusing to take advantage of the protections you are granted by the ADA.
I’ve heard objections to ADA protections (including the use of a service dog) that basically go “Well, I have XYZ problem, and I don’t insist that anybody do anything for ME.”
Personal decisions are for individuals. How you choose to address your disability, or how Honour chooses to address hers, don’t get anybody brownie points in the game of life. That’s why the legal status of disability protections is so vital; the entire gamut of protections MUST be there for everyone, whether or not everyone chooses to take advantage of them.
5) Mitigating the disability – whether with medication or tools or a dog or whatever – has no effect on whether or not the person is disabled.
When Honour has a dog and she’s in a grocery store, she looks like a happy kid with a little dog. You’re likely to notice the hair a lot more than you would any behavior. But that does not mean she isn’t disabled. If, someday, she chooses to take medication to help with her OCD, and it allows her to live a much more average life, she will still be disabled, and still protected.
6) The name of the condition (or lack of name) has no bearing on anything. One person may be disabled by a condition that does not disable another person.
In other words, “I have X and I’m fine, so I don’t know why you can’t deal with it too,” is not an answer. Neither is “I have Y and I take meds for it and so should you.”
7) You do not have to be completely unable to do a life activity to be substantially limited in that life activity.
For example, someone with a certain class of disability might be able to work a full-time job where they do not have any physical contact with others. They may, in fact, do so with enormous success and rise to a position of prominence. They are still substantially limited in the major activity of working, and are still legally disabled. A wheelchair athlete is still substantially limited in the major activity of walking, and is legally disabled.
If because of severe acrophobia (fear of heights) I cannot work in an office above the second floor, I am legally disabled. It doesn’t matter that there are sixteen million jobs that are on the ground or first or second floors of buildings. I am substantially limited from working anywhere that is above the second floor, so it is a disability.
8) Service dogs do work or perform tasks. These are two separate things.
Honour’s dogs do both – they work independently to address her disability and they obey commands and do tasks. But they are not required to do both in order to be service dogs. You do not need to see a dog obeying a command to assume it is a service dog. You do not need to see them on the ground to assume that they are service dogs. Sammy, in fact, does best when she is carried, so she can be near Honour’s face and can pat her and lick her and so on. Both dogs do tasking on the ground, but are frequently up in arms.
Maybe the best way I can put “work” is that when I take a Cardigan out and spend the day with them going from activity to activity, they come home excited and energized. They may snooze happily in the car, but they see the whole thing as a big fireworks festival and come bouncing out of their seats and run around with the other dogs and brag about where they went.
Similarly, when we socialize service dog prospects as puppies, they run and preen and jump and show off, ending the day even more excited than they begin it it.
That all changes when they begin to understand what the vest means. When we get in the car after working with a dog, they DROP. As soon as the vest is off, they’re barely able to keep their heads up. They’ll sleep all that evening and barely rouse to go to bed. It’s as exhausting to them as a full day of manual labor would be.
9) There is no legal definition of what must be included in service dog tasking or training.
Service dogs do not need to know sit, down, stay, or come. They don’t need an out-of-sight stay. They don’t need to behave well with a strange handler away from their owner, and they don’t need to heel. All of those are test elements from specific service dog organizations, and any or none may apply to the tasks a service dog needs to do to help an individual disabled person. Service dogs need to be in control in public and they need to toilet appropriately. That’s IT.
Remember that the definition of substantial limitation of a major life activity is finding difficult or impossible anything that an average person would find easy to do. That includes not just “stuff you do,” but “how your body works.” Life activities can be seeing, hearing, responding to germs appropriately, socializing, working, and a huge number of other things. That means your service dog’s jobs can be just as varied, and their required tasks are almost infinite. If your disability involves the major life activity of standing or walking, then your service dog may need exactly that above list of training elements (a perfect heel, stay, tug, and so on) in order to do the tasks you need for your disability. But if your disability involves the major life activity of being in crowds, then your service dog needs to work independently, often away from your body, very seldom in heel position. They should never let you out of their sight, and they should object rather strongly to being removed from you by a strange handler. If your disability involves the major life activity of moving blood around your body because you have hypertension, and your dog reminds you to take your meds, then the LAST thing you want is for him to be sleeping in the corner because you told him he was on a long down.
This once again comes back to never assuming that you know more than the handler-dog team. You’re not “spotting a fake” if a dog is lying on somebody’s feet or curled around their necks. You don’t get to feel superior if you see a dog apparently pulling a person down an aisle.
10) A person with a disability may not always need a service dog. It’s normal for them to sometimes arrive with one and sometimes not.
Think of a service dog the way you would pain medication for a bad knee (very appropriate, because a chronic bad knee fits the legal definition of a disability too). If you know you’re going to be doing a lot of stairs that day, you need it, and if you forget it you absolutely cannot function. On a day that you know you’re going to be relaxing at the beach, you feel comfortable leaving the meds at home or in your purse.
We’ll rarely leave the service dogs at home, but we’ll often bring one or more with us “undressed.” They know when they’re on regular collars they can goof off and be silly and not freak out every time Honour takes a breath. If they’re undressed they do NOT come in to grocery stores or restaurants. They are off duty and not performing a service. If Honour realizes she needs them working, she puts on their vests and they turn on.
Someday, when she is living independently, she may find that she can leave her dog back in her dorm room while she goes to chemistry class, but must bring him or her to anthropology. That doesn’t mean she’s faking it in anthropology class or not disabled when she’s in chemistry class. It just means that she can see that the lab tables and stools are clean and everything gets autoclaved after it is used, but the anthropology chairs are still warm from the last person’s rear end when she comes in and has to sit in one. One place feels clean and safe; the other feels like a sucking cave of contamination. So she’ll have a dog in her lap in one class and not in the other, or she’ll someday have a dog in her lap during the lunch hour but it can be sleeping in a crate during most of the work day. That’s entirely normal for people with a disability, and has no impact on whether they’re protected by the ADA.
If there’s one major overarching thing I can say, it is this: The protections that are put in place for people under the ADA are not there so you have to treat certain people like they have a disability. They are there so you have to treat people like they DON’T have a disability. When Honour walks into Stop and Shop, she doesn’t want life to stop. She just wants to get a yogurt, pay, and leave. She is allowed to have whatever accommodations she needs to let her do those things in as close to an “average” way as possible. That is really what it’s all about.
Note in 2015: If you are visiting this page in the years since I wrote it, I am happy to say that the statements remain true, and legally valid. A new guidance document was released very recently; it can be found HERE. It addresses things like whether service dogs can be carried (yes) and whether multiple service dogs can be used at the same time (yes). If you have any other questions on what service dogs have helped us with, feel free to contact me.
Oh, and yes, every single day of our lives is still made possible by service dogs. In fact, a year ago Meriwether (Honour’s older sister) was diagnosed with an unrelated disability, and Oswin the Standard Poodle joined the family. It’s been an adventure training a big dog, but she has been remarkable for Meri. Honour continues to work with Sammy, who is now mostly retired but still sharp as a whip, and with Zola the Tibetan Spaniel and Katniss the Cardigan.