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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

'Service Dog? Yeah, Right'

Ariana Aboulafia |
March 4, 2014 | 8:52 p.m. PST


What does disability "look" like? It's not what you might think. (PawsitivityServiceDogs)
What does disability "look" like? It's not what you might think. (PawsitivityServiceDogs)
Part of my life is haunted by a symbol. The symbol stares at me from walls. It marks classrooms and bathrooms and ramps. It is a person sitting on a half-circle that is supposed to be a wheelchair. It is the mark that signifies that a place is “handicap accessible,” or available for the use of disabled people.

But it has become more than that. A symbol is not supposed to be all-inclusive. Yet, while it is inherently understood that in order to be a woman, one does not need to wear a triangular dress, society has yet to grasp that in order to be disabled one does not need to be in a wheelchair.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual,” with “major life activity” being defined as “caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, standing, walking, speaking, concentrating, thinking, working (etc.) and/or the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, respiratory and reproductive (etc) functions.”

Clearly, the law has created an open definition of disability to encompass and protect those who cannot fully function “normally,” but, for whatever reason, this open definition has not proliferated into society as a whole.

I don’t feel the need to share my specific disabilities with the internet at large. Suffice it to say, however, that I am disabled, but I don’t usually “appear” to be. I am almost 20 years old. I am young, thin and generally healthy. I can (usually) walk without help. I can see and hear and, for the most part, take care of myself. My personal disabilities tend to manifest themselves in issues relating to concentrating, thinking, eating and sleeping, all important things that I have had the interesting experience of being completely and totally unable to do at various points throughout my life. But, because I do not “look” disabled—I am not in a wheelchair, I don’t have a white cane or a hearing aid, etc.—I am constantly ridiculed for asking for accommodations for myself and for my service animal.

By choosing to walk around with a dog in a service vest, I choose to consistently identify myself as a disabled person; but, because I don’t “look” disabled, I am constantly accused of “faking” my disabilities. I cannot even count the number of times that I have been (illegally) asked what my disabilities are or accused of being a fraud.

My favorite example, though, has to be when I walked into a Whole Foods once with my service dog to buy some groceries. Upon entering the store I was immediately confronted by an angry security guard who demanded to see a “service dog license” for my animal (despite the fact that this, too, is illegal according to the ADA). After I appeased him, I walked a few feet further into the store only to be confronted, again, by a Beverly-Hills-housewife type woman who noted my dog’s service vest and greeted me with:

“Service dog? Yeah fucking right.”

Sweet, isn’t it? Clearly people think that it is a fairly common thing these days to pretend that you are disabled simply so you can bring your dog with you wherever you go. So common, in fact, that even The Los Angeles Times is reporting on it: they recently posted an article which stated that there is currently a California State Senate committee looking into the problem of “fake service dogs,” and that “representatives of the California restaurant, retail, hotel, apartment, and condominium industries have testified that dog owners who don’t want to be separated from their pets are abusing the Americans with Disabilities Act... by falsely identifying their canines as working animals.”

My question is, how do they know for a fact that those dogs were not actually service animals? The article mentions a man named Jim Power, a licensed trainer of guide dogs for the blind, who testified seeing “a 20-something lady... with a Chihuahua on a leash” at an amusement park. He testified in front of the committee saying that this person’s service dog “didn’t particularly look very legitimate,” in his professional opinion. But does that necessarily mean that this woman was falsely identifying her dog as a service animal? After all, he never asked her, and she never admitted anything. For all he knows, she has PTSD from a sexual assault (considering that, according to a study by the University of South Carolina Medical School, almost 31 percent of all rape victims experience PTSD), and the Chihuahua alerts her when she is going to have anxiety attacks or flashbacks.

My point is, having a bunch of people (especially people that would benefit from an increase in the rigidity of service animal laws, like trainers) testify that a service dog is not a service dog based on speculation doesn’t seem to be a great basis for lawmaking; and, increasing the rigidity of laws concerning service dogs will simply further disadvantage disabled people and have little to no effect on those who are actually “faking it.”

I’m sure there are people who like to be with their dogs so much that they pretend that they are disabled. And I think that the laws were probably written on the assumption that people without disabilities wouldn’t walk around pretending that they have disabilities. Clearly, lawmakers were wrong, and there actually are people that are self-centered enough to do this. I think that these people are disgusting. I think they need serious self and moral reevaluation. But, again, trying to enforce morality legally will only make the life of the disabled person significantly more difficult. How would legislators change service dog laws? Would they make it legal for businesses to demand medical proof of a person’s disability? Because, to me, that’s a violation of a patient’s right to privacy. Would they make it legal to simply ask a person about their disabilities? Because not only would this also be a violation of the right to privacy, it would only serve to embarrass people who are actually disabled; after all, if someone thinks it’s okay to pretend to have a service dog, isn’t it also reasonable to assume that they will have no qualms about lying to someone’s face about having a disability? Let’s say lawmakers chose to respect patient privacy and focused instead on the dog. Would they add in requirements for all service dogs to go through a certification and training process? How would that be regulated? And, how would disabled people (13.4 percent of which are unemployed) pay for this process?

Being accused of faking a disability or pretending to have a service dog is, to put it lightly, upsetting. It’s definitely not something that should be done by government officials. But, at the same time, government officials wouldn’t need to even be considering this issue if people did not pretend to have disabilities when they do not. I don’t think the answer to this issue lies in changing the law, but rather in educating people on things that service dogs really do to help people that would otherwise suffer. People like me. Perhaps if more people understood the importance of service dogs to disabled people, they would at least think twice before buying a service dog vest on Ebay and using it to get Fido into the grocery store.


Reach Ariana Aboulafia here; follow her here.



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