From the first day I got my Service Dog, Joey, I was taught that Rule Number One is Get Out In Your Community.
“You’re a Team now,” my disability consultant Annette said. “Get out in your world and be a vital part of it. Let Joey do his job, and you live your life.”
I looked down at my neat Bleu Toy Poodle in his neat blue Service Dog vest and thought: At least, I’ll never forget to take my meds now. I didn’t think: “Oh, boy! I get to be a disability rights educator and activist.” My disabilities are invisible; and I wanted them to stay that way. It never occurred to me that having a Service Dog would make me very visible.
“You’ll have to tell people what Joey does when you’re asked. You know it’s the law.” Apparently, besides being a disability consultant, she was a mind reader, too. “Use your famous Southern Charm. You’ll need it.”
It was the best Service Dog advice I’ve ever gotten.
I became an educator by accident. It just happened one day. It wasn’t the day that Joey decided to poop right in front of the deli counter at Sipe’s, either. It happened over lunch…
Because Joey and I are a Service Dog Team, we’re always together; and one day, we were sitting in fast food franchise, when the manager approached us and loudly asked for our Papers.
Startled, I said: “Pardon?”
“May I see your Papers?”
“He’s a Service Dog,” I replied and went back to my food. (Joey was wearing his neat blue vest with Service Dog embroidered on it plus his hangtag. He was lying quietly in my lap. I was eating my lunch.)
“If he doesn’t have Papers, you have to leave,”
I was shocked and a little afraid. “Miss, under the ADA, my Service Dog doesn’t need ‘papers’ or proof of disability,” I said, using my nicest Southern Voice. “By law, you may ask me what tasks he performs and nothing more.”
“I was told you have to have Papers,” the manager replied, a little less firmly. “And if it’s a real Service Dog, it has to be on the floor.”
“You were told wrong on both counts,” I said, sweetly. “I have a laminated printout of the law in my purse. Sit down and I’ll show it to you. And I’ll tell you what Joey does for me.”
“But your Papers…” She looked miserable, and I felt almost sorry for her. Almost.
“This isn’t Nazi Germany,” I said, evenly yet charmingly. “I don’t have Papers; I have a disability. Anyone who showed you papers for their dog probably bought them on the Internet for their pet animal, so they could circumvent the law. Now, please join us or call the owner.”
I have to give her credit: she did both.
I introduced myself and Joey and pulled my copy of the ADA as it pertains to Service Dogs out of my purse and spent the next fifteen minutes explaining what a Service Dog is and isn’t – and that as of March 2011 only dogs and miniature horses are recognized as Service Animals under the law.
“Joey’s a Medical Alert Dog. He alerts me ,when it’s time for me to take my medicine,” I said. “And he also alerts when I’m going to have a pain flare. He knows about a half an hour beforehand, which gives me time to get home before it hits.”
The manager, whose name was Helena, asked me what my disability is, which is the big mamma of all No-Nos under the ADA. As my disabilities are invisible, I struggled with my answer.
“By law, you can’t ask me what my disability is,” I replied. “But I choose to tell you. I’m aphasic – that means I’m brain injured – and I suffer from a severe physical pain condition. Joey makes it possible for me to have a life beyond the confines of my house.”
I silently prayed that Joey wouldn’t flirt. (Every Service Dog has one bad habit. Joey’s is he flirts.) Sensing my mood, Joey remained serenely in my lap until the conversation was finished and lunch was over.
“Just remember: you can ask what tasks the Service Dog performs,” I said. “And please stop asking for Papers. It makes you sound unkind – you are not unkind.”
She said she understood now.
A week later, I met with the franchise owner to discuss Service Dogs and the ADA. We talked about returning disabled veterans with Service Dogs. We talked about different kinds of tasks that Service Dogs perform. We talked about Balance and Brace Dogs, and Mobility Dogs and dogs that propel their teammates’ wheelchairs. We talked about Seizure Dogs, and. Hearing Dogs, and Guide Dogs for the Blind. Mr. Franchise was very receptive, because I was willing to educate rather than get all my handicapped friends all riled for an Action. We all parted friends in spite of the fact that Joey flirted the entire time. Within in the hour, policy was changed in all of Mr. Franchise’s stores to adhere to the ADA – and to date, no Service Dog team has been asked to see their Papers. And Mr. Franchise went on to change policy throughout the corporation, nation-wide. My first experience standing up for the rights of Service Dog Teams had the best possible outcome.
That day, Joey and I, as a Team, become ambassadors of disability rights education to the able-bodied world of fast food. All it takes is One Voice – just one – to start a dialogue about change. As much as I love a picket line full of feisty Disability Rights Activists, sometimes all it takes is One Voice and a laminated law card to get things done. After our success with Mr. Franchise, Joey and I moved on to other actions – quiet ones, maybe – but they were just as important and in different ways just as satisfying. By being willing to reach out to our community, we’ve changed it – and that’s what disability rights education is all about.
Kayla & Joey Rigney – Service Dog Team & Disability Rights Educators
To find out what the ADA says about Service Animals, click on the link: http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm.