By Fransi Weinstein
Google it. You'll be horrified. I certainly was. Still am for that matter.
We're talking about veterans who risk their lives fighting for their countries and who return home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or people who experience seizures, have diabetes, psychiatric issues, all manner of disabilities visible and invisible, and yes, people who are blind.
All of them, each and every one, are individuals who depend on service dogs to guide them, lead them, comfort them, protect them, alert them, watch over them and see for them. And every day, every hour, in cities and towns throughout North America, they are refused entry to stores, restaurants, cafes, hotels, taxis, airplanes and apartment buildings. Discriminated against.
They're told, "Your dog can't come in here. You're OK, but not your dog." Despite the fact that service dogs wear special harnesses to distinguish them. Despite the fact that most, if not all, of these people carry cards confirming that they have a disability. Despite the fact that it's against the law.
Clearly no one cares about breaking the law, mostly because the laws aren't enforced, or at least not often enough. And even then, as the one denied entry you have to prove the law was broken. Most often, you're alone, with no witnesses to come to your aid or defence. A he-said/she-said type of situation.
Reading about it is bad enough, but then I spoke with someone who has to deal with the discrimination first-hand.
Reeling from everything I was reading online, I wanted to talk to someone with a service dog to find out if the situation is really as bad as it seems. I wanted to find out if discrimination really is that prevalent, that widespread. I spent close to an hour on the phone with Diane Bergeron. What an eye-opener that was.
Diane is the executive director of strategic relations and engagement for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). She has a service dog, a gorgeous golden retriever named Lucy. She's always on the go in Ottawa, where she lives and works, and travelling on business, domestically and internationally.
Born with retinitis pigmentosa, she became legally blind at 10 and lost all sight at 30. Not one to let this or anything else stand in her way, she thrives on personal challenges, like skydiving, stock car racing and participating in the Ironman triathlon.
But the challenges of constantly having to defend her right to bring Lucy everywhere she goes is too much, even for this accomplished, independent and fearless woman. "Anything relating to food, hospitality and transportation is the worst," she told me.
Some of the issues Diane, and others like her, face all the time
"Even when I call for a taxi and tell them I'm blind with a service dog, cabbies very often drive away when they see us; and when they do stop, they often refuse to let my dog in the car."
Several years ago on a trip to Fort McMurray, Alberta, for a conference, she arrived at the airport at midnight because her flight was delayed. Her arranged ride had come and gone. Not one taxi was willing to let her dog accompany her. Not a single one.
There she was, exhausted, alone, in a strange city, with no way of getting to her hotel. A total stranger offered to drive her. She was uncomfortable -- who wouldn't be? But what choice did she have? Luckily the woman was truly a Good Samaritan.
As it happens, delayed flights are the least of Diane's problems when flying. The Canadian Transportation Agency regulations state that air carriers must provide sufficient floor space for the service animal at the person's seat, so the animal is safe, comfortable and can carry out its duties.
Yet, on a recent five-hour flight from Arizona to Ottawa, Diane was sitting all the way at the back of the plane, in the 20th row, with inadequate space for Lucy. On domestic flights the seat beside a passenger travelling with a service dog is supposed to remain unsold, so the dog has two seats worth of space on the floor. But this was an international flight, the regulations are different, and the seat was occupied.
Diane weighs 120 pounds. Lucy weighs 60 and is a full-grown golden retriever. In order to cram the poor dog into the tiny space where Diane's legs should have gone, Lucy's harness had to be removed and her front end had to rest on Diane, until she was finally able to maneuver the dog onto the floor.
With no room for her own legs, Diane was forced to literally sit on them. For five hours. Not just uncomfortable, but dangerous. Because of the threat of deep-vein thrombosis, passengers on flights, particularly long ones, are encouraged to walk around frequently. Absolutely impossible for Diane.
Unacceptable. All of it. And frankly, listening to her stories, I found myself embarrassed to be a member of the human race.
Although Diane was referring to some of her frustrations as a triathlete, she could have been describing what life can be like for anyone with a disability when she said, "You'd think that the most difficult thing about being a blind triathlete is being blind. But in fact it's not. The most difficult thing about being a blind triathlete is having to deal with the blindness of sighted people's attitudes."
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The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as dogs individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Tasks can range from calming a veteran with post traumatic stress disorder to retrieving keys from a hook on the wall; but just don't call them pets. "Keep the word 'pet' out of there," says Paul Bowskill, general manager of Service Dogs America, a company that sells harnesses, vests and wallet cards that help identify dogs as service animals. "They are an extension of the person who has the disability." This also serves as another reason to ask before you pet a dog. It may be on the job.
Getting a dog to routinely perform specialized tasks can take months -- even years -- of preparation. Canine Assistants places dogs through a labor-intensive, 18-month program that begins with neuromuscular stimulation exercises when puppies are only two days old. These exercises, originally used to prepare military dogs, prepare the animals to handle potentially stressful situations in the future. Professional trainers also teach dogs to retrieve items for individuals with mobility issues, and a network of volunteers place them in social situations, such as navigating an office or taking public transportation. Arnold estimates that Canine Assistants spends about $24,500 on training as well as lifetime care for each service animal. When dogs are ready, the organization uses extensive personality tests to identify 12 to 14 individuals from a waiting list of more than 1,600 people. During a two-week training camp, dogs interact with families then make their selection. "Until you see it, you just don't believe it," Arnold says. "They crawl up on their person like, 'Where have you been?'"
Arnold and her team primarily work with golden retrievers and Lab mixes, noting attributes that go beyond breed characteristics. "They love to retrieve because they love to use their mouths," she says. "Public perception also is important for us because we want the dog to be a social icebreaker." According to the ADA, any breed can work as a service dog. But breed-specific bans have presented challenges for individuals who use pit bulls as service dogs. A retired police officer named Jim Sak gained national recognition after he won a temporary injunction reuniting him and his pit bull service dog, despite a city ban on the breed. Leavitt also has taken pre-emptive measures to fight breed bans, attending a city council meeting with her pit bull. "The council tried to kick me out until I showed them the service dog card," Leavitt told the Utah Standard-Examiner. "I couldn't have her as a service dog if I had to mark her as dangerous."
With a few exceptions, service dogs can accompany human partners anywhere that's open to the public, including airports or restaurants. Dogs must wear a leash or tether, unless it interferes with accomplishing a task. But the ADA does not require gear identifying them as working dogs, and business owners can only make limited inquiries when it is not obvious what service the animal provides. Organizations such as the United States Service Dog Registry sell identification gear and recommend that individuals with disabilities clearly display patches or "working dog" vests to help educate the public and facilitate access to public areas. "Travel through O'Hare [airport] at 4:30 or 5 p.m. with a service dog that doesn't have a vest on; it's like going through a mine field," Bowskill says. "They'll still stop you, but it's easier with vest."
Dogs get sick, they get injured and they require daily care. Arnold tells prospective clients that caring for a service dog is a long-term proposition that delivers big dividends. Quest Magazine, produced by the Muscular Dystrophy Association, captures a few fun and funny stories on its website. With a service dog by their side, many people with disabilities are able to work and reach new levels of independence. "It's a huge commitment," she says. "But the fact that it's a huge commitment is a huge benefit for folks who had never been responsible for something in their lives."
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