I’m climbing (with the help of my mobility assistance dog Luke) onto my soapbox, today. I have been upset about this article on a service dog blog I follow ever since it appeared, and the article was highlighted again recently in a newsletter, so now I feel even more called to respond.
This is one of those times when the advocate / hell-raiser / speak-out-er / are-you-effing-kidding-me-er / no-thanks-I-will-not-mind-my-manners-&-keep-quiet-er in me breaks loose of her “behave,” be a “good girl” & try to “play well with others” leash to run around the neighborhood barking-mad for a dang-good barking reason.
From the article in question:
“Be aware that your impression upon others, again likely being their first and only interaction with a team, can directly affect your rights later.”
“Be kind, be courteous, and treat others as you want to be treated. You may be in a rush, but the decision to partner with a Service Dog comes with responsibilities, so you should always strive to be a better Service Dog team than you were yesterday, last month or last year.”
While I believe we should all (regardless of whether we’re partnered with service dogs or not) strive to be patient & polite, kind & respectful, and that those of us with service dogs should always abide by the laws regarding public access and, furthermore, always do our best to raise awareness & educate whenever time, the situation, and our energy allows – I find some of the espoused “logic” & advice in this article both harmful & offensive.
Would you counsel another minority class – say, a person of color, someone who is Jewish or Muslim – in the same way when having their civil rights challenged? Please, think about the message you are sending, which is basically: Y’all look pretty & be on your best behavior, now. You be just as nice as you can be, and whatever you do, don’t talk back (AKA, Don’t stand up for yourself too straight or tall or loudly), or we might not be allowed back again.
Access & accommodation laws regarding persons with disabilities & service dog teams are just that, laws: civil rights. Yes, we must always conduct ourselves lawfully. Yes, we should strive to be civil when going about the business of defending our rights when dealing with gatekeepers & the public – but, my gosh, it is not, in fact, our “responsibility” to inform or educate the public. We have to declare ourselves disabled & our dogs service dogs, we have to say how our dogs serve us – that’s all.
If we’re able to take the time & have the energy to raise awareness, to offer information, to answer more questions, that’s wonderful, that’s usually helpful – but, let’s be clear: that’s going above & beyond. It is not necessary; it is not incumbent upon us to do so. Would you expect a person in a wheelchair to spend time repeatedly explaining why they need their wheelchair or why they have a right to be able to have access & accommodation? And when people are being insensitive, when they’re responding with the kind of ignorance – the kind, you know it, that if it were about skin color or sexual orientation or religion, would be very obviously inappropriate – would you expect a person to respond with patience & light, a big smile & sweet voice, to address each person & instance to try to educate them? In scenarios when the ignorance & insensitivities rise to outright discrimination, would you expect the people whose rights are being violated to keep on-hand & pass out pamphlets informing others about the law?
Please, understand, I’m not advocating being short or rude to people; I’m not saying we shouldn’t take time to patiently & politely explain access & accommodation laws whenever possible. I’m not saying we shouldn’t answer the questions of the curious in the hopes of spreading service dog & service dog team good will around the globe, but the idea that it’s our job or our responsibility is ludicrous. And for you to assert that we may soon have our civil rights taken away if we aren’t “nice enough” is so close to the 1960s & ’70s language of be-nice-&-look-nice-or-else of the Civil Rights movement that it’s downright frightening.
Also, I’m lucky to have matching shoes on & clothes facing the right direction most days, but you know what? I’m allowed to go to Target dressed that way, just as any able-bodied person is. Telling people with health issues – who struggle with the most basic of things that others take for granted – that they have to look a certain way because they represent the whole of disabled people partnered with service dogs is just plain silly. Implying that I shouldn’t go out in public with my service dog if I cannot meet a higher standard of grooming & dress-code is, in my opinion, more than a mite insensitive & unkind.
The point of having a mobility assistance dog is to enable me, to mitigate my disabilities. The point of having access & accommodation laws is to protect my civil rights so that I will be treated as an *equal* to able-bodied people. It is not, therefore, my job or my responsibility to be any more patient, polite, nice, kind, etc. than any other citizen; neither is it my job or my responsibility to educate others about the law. When others act toward me in a way that is unlawful, in a way that violates my civil rights, yes, I will respond lawfully, and I will always endeavor to treat others as I would hope to be treated. But I am not called upon to be more, More, MORE, better, Better, BETTER every day, month, year.
The laws & protections of civil rights make me equal to, they do not call me to be better than or more than. I do not have to adopt the attitude & behaviors of constantly striving to earn or to keep my rights. I do not have to earn what I already have. I do not have to “be a good girl or else.”
I have civil rights. People with disabilities who are partnered with service dogs are protected by laws because of who they are & their status as disabled. That is enough. We don’t have to be superheroes of patience or Pollyannas of politeness. We do not have to carry papers with us to educate or to enlighten. We do not have to go out into the world & “preach the gospel” of service dogs & service dog teams. We can just be, like anybody else – as in, the same. Not more, not less; equal to.
And, seriously, I don’t know about you, but most days that I manage to even leave my house it’s really all I can handle to carry on with a few meager day-to-day errands. I’m usually quite patient & very kind, and I’d wager anybody who’s been out with me will tell you how much time & effort I actually do put into engaging people my service dog & I interact with in a positive way that leaves a good impression. But you’ll have to forgive me if, sometimes, I’m only as polite as the next person – a human being, being very human – the average citizen who has good days & bad days, just like everybody else. And, like everybody else, I get to keep my civil rights, whether I’m the epitome of perfect-example decorum or not.
My decision to partner with a service dog, in contradiction to your above statement, did not in fact come with any extra duties – duties you imply that, if not carried out well enough, may result in having the protection of my civil rights taken away. I must abide by the code of behavior for any trained service dog team the way the ADA is written, but I’m not bound to take on the mantle of Good Citizen of the year, run for Miss Congeniality or aspire toward social-interaction sainthood. So, please, stop with the scare tactics. Please stop telling people to hold themselves accountable to some higher (and higher and higher!) standard. The regular standards are enough. We are enough. Equal, remember?
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*To read the article I’m responding to: “Ten Ways To Be A Better Service Dog Team in 2014” Which, I should point out, has some really good advice, too. Life is like that: some really objectionable stuff dressed up as good, and placed the amongst company of mostly-good. And I have no doubt that even the objectionable advice was well-intended – not that I find said bad advice any less objectionable, of course.