THE BLOG

Dogs on the Playing Field

12/04/2013 12:04 pm ET | Updated Feb 03, 2014
Shutterstock / Jeroen van den Broek

No one gets a free pass to public life -- "public life" -- the elusive goal people with disabilities strive for. While the village square is sometimes difficult to enter often a service animal can help. In my case I travel with a guide dog, a yellow Lab named Nira who helps me in traffic. Together we race up Fifth Avenue in New York or speed through O'Hare airport in Chicago. We're a terrific team. But even 23 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and 70+ years since the introduction of guide dogs in the U.S. life in public isn't always friendly. Lately it seems more unfriendly than at any time since the late 1930s when the blind had to fight for the right to enter a store or ride a public bus. What's going on?

One thing the blind have to contend with is service dog proliferation. Nowadays there are many kinds of professionally trained dogs performing dozens of assistive tasks for disabled people. This is a very good thing in my view, as dogs and humans working together can change the world or at least the playing field. Service dogs are, in the strictest sense, dogs trained specifically to help the disabled manage one or more life functions that otherwise would be impossible.

In fact that's what disability is -- a function disjunction. The ADA makes it clear:

The term 'disability' means, with respect to an individual (A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual, (B) a record of such an impairment or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.

Major life activities include:

but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.

Major bodily functions means: "functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions."

The range of disability is broad not because bureaucrats have big imaginations but because substantial limitations are wide spread in a complex society. In turn, when thinking of service dogs, I'm reminded of the digital slogan: "there's an app for that." Nowadays there's a dog for almost any disability as canines assist wheelchair users retrieve objects, open cupboards, hand money to cashiers or help with balance, just to name a few of their skills. Dogs are trained to detect the onset of seizures or help hearing impaired people detect audible signals. Some dogs assist diabetics by sensing changes in blood sugar. There are dogs to help children with autism and dogs who accompany people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All these skills reflect the amazing talents of dogs and the pioneering vision of the guide dog movement which started the service dog industry by pairing trained dogs with blind veterans.

Despite the acceptance and advantages of working dogs many who use them are experiencing increasing obstacles in public. One reason is dogs are often trained to help people with invisible disabilities. Many wounded warriors are being helped by extraordinary dogs trained to help with anxiety. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is crippling but it can't always be seen. Ironically, when a trained dog helps its owner stay focused and calm, his or her disability won't be at all apparent. Legitimate service dog users are routinely denied entrance to public venues and are often humiliated. Lately the stories have been piling up on my desk -- a service man and his superbly trained dog were recently booted out of a fast food restaurant; another veteran not long ago was denied access on a public bus. A legally blind woman, whose blindness allows her what's called "residual vision" was recently hassled in a movie theater by another customer who argued loudly that she and her dog were fakes. As I say, the stories are legion. Not long ago I was prevented from entering a restaurant near Central Park by an overly officious doorman. He didn't question my disability -- he questioned whether my dog was legit.

Some argue these problems could be prevented by requiring service dog users to carry identification cards. But there's a good reason we're not compelled to do this -- my disability is my business and not yours. Why should I have to disclose that I have a psychiatric condition or a neurological disease? Moreover the ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to assist an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.

The simplest way to tell if an a dog is a working animal is by its professionalism. If you're a business owner the law does not force you to endure a misbehaving animal. In fact it's the performance of a service dog that really matters -- not just in traffic or in crowds, but everywhere. Public life is the goal for the disabled but I fear the village square is narrowing and has grown more covetous over the past decade. Not long ago a reporter for a major New York tabloid took her own badly behaved dog into a famous restaurant, telling the manager she had a disability, knowing full well she didn't need to produce any proof. Then she ostentatiously encouraged her dog to eat off plates on tables. Her point? Anyone can bring his or her dog anywhere because of the specious ADA. Lost on on this writer is the hoary fact that people can imitate anything in America. If you wish, you can pretend to be a Rockefeller or dress as a priest. We've always been a nation of con men and the able bodied have always pretended to be disabled, imagining advantages like better parking or early boarding on airplanes. But here's what I suggest: Look for the professionalism of the disabled and their companion animals and try to remember the village is open space, and we're here: women, men and our dogs.

Stephen Kuusisto teaches in the Center on Human Policy, Law and Disability Studies at Syracuse University. He is working on a book about guide dogs which will be published next year by Simon and Schuster.