Sadly, all service dog handlers are used to people assuming we’re faking our disability and that our dogs are simply pets who we’re trying to pass off as service dogs. What’s even sadder, however, is that some of this discrimination comes from within the service dog community.
Until today, I had never directly encountered it. When I did, it shook me more than it should have. It happened this morning and when I think about it, I still start to tear up.
Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve had a cold for the past week and a half and I’m on cold medicine that already gives me the jitters, but this morning I was shaking I was so upset. It’s never hurt me when the general public has assumed I’m faking my disability. I’m used to it. When you have a rare disorder, people would rather think that you’re making it up – that’s easier than trying to learn how to pronounce “mitochondria.”
It’s also easier to assume that a blind person isn’t really blind because they don’t fit the media’s portrayal of blindness.
After 30 some years of this type of discrimination, I have a thick skin. But not today. Today, I lost myself in a vat of tears over this. The service dog community is one place where I shouldn’t have to deal with this.
You see, there are people who troll social media looking for fake service dogs. I get why they do it. I completely understand. They want to expose these people, some of whom are misinformed and others are unabashedly gaming the system. People who fake having a disability make it harder for those of us who actually need service dogs to function in the world. There are lots of reasons for this and one of them is that the increase in fake SDs has caused everyone to assume that every service dog is fake.
So, there are people who go to accounts tagged with #therapydog, #emotionalsupportanimal, or #servicedog, and comment with factual information on why the animal doesn’t fit one or more of those definitions. There are also social media accounts that post screenshots of this stuff. Buttons and I ended up on one of these pages.
I’m not linking to the page, it’s not important. I’ve been having a civil discussion with the admin and she says she honestly can’t remember why she put the picture of us on the page, as it was from December 2015 – it was presented without comment. But it’s there, the emotional damage is done.
This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered people like this. I’ve seen them post on other people’s accounts. I’ve also had some people pose questions on my Instagram photos before. When I give them facts, and it’s clear that I’m not faking, they don’t come back and they let it go.
What these people are missing is that their actions are producing the opposite effect of their intentions. They’re doing this so that people with legitimate disabilities will stop having to defend themselves to the public. And yet, here I sat today, defending myself to them.
In an effort to protect each other from discrimination, we’ve started eating our own and it has to stop.
A friend posted a note of support on her service dog’s page. Someone commented that they thought I was unethical to use Buttons as a guide dog because how could a Shiba guide a very large person – well, I’m not a very large person. I’m quite small, actually. The idea behind the comment was that I don’t experience my disability in the same way that she did – i.e. she has other mobility issues, I do not.
No one experiences their disability in the same way as another. No one.
So let’s recap:
I’ll “justify” my health – I’ve been visually impaired since birth. I have a mitochondrial disorder that causes so many health issues I’m not even going to list them. If you doubt me, google “mitochondrial disorders” and then take a seat – no really, take a literal seat because you’re going to be reading for hours.
And now I’ll justify my service dog – Here are the things I trained Buttons to do for me:
1. He leans into me (he walks slightly ahead of me on my left) when there is an object in my path that I cannot see.
2. He will pull gently to the right if there is an object on the right that I cannot see. This way I know to move.
3. He will stop in front of steps so that I know they are there.
4. He will go down steps one by one. I can feel the depth of the step by how far he pulls on the leash – this is life-saving.
(Because I know people are wondering, we do not use a harness with a guide handle. I don’t like them. I use a special leash with a rubberized grip that is the perfect length and gives the me the amount of control that I need to sense and react properly to Buttons’ alerts.)
These tasks mitigate my very real disability. End of discussion.
No wait, this shouldn’t even be a discussion. I shouldn’t have to say any of this. This is what we are all fighting against.
We’ve gotten so defensive that we’re assuming everyone we encounter with a service dog doesn’t really have a disability. It’s not just unconventional pairs like Buttons and me – I’ve seen people comment on posts where the dog is clearly from a training program.
We should all know better. We all fight daily to convince the world of the truth – that everyone’s experience with their disability is unique and we can’t judge one person’s disability by another’s experience. Yet, we’ve started doing it to each other. We’re using our own experience as a yardstick to measure the validity of someone else’s life.
Stop it. Stop it right now.
Let’s be better than this. We are better than this.