Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Having Trooper certainly has made my life easier. I feel less alone and isolated when Debby’s out of the house and, when out on walks, more confident that I won’t be overrun by something unseen. And I’m more self-assertive—so much so that folks sometimes think I’m spoilin’ for a fight.

That last has to do with service-dog politics.

Federal law mandates that service animals and their owners have the right to go anywhere in public, including restaurants and shops. They are not required to be registered, or to carry papers or other identification, because the burden of proof should never be on people with disabilities. They’ve got other things to deal with.

This bothers a lot of uninformed people and gives unscrupulous ones the fraudulent idea that they can pass off their pets as service animals by buying vests, leashes and faked certificates on the Internet that they think proclaims the animal's "right" to go anywhere.

As a result, Trooper and I will occasionally attract the stink eye from skeptics who just can’t believe such a small dog is legit. (Size hardly matters with a hearing dog.) 

To others, Trooper’s signal orange vest proclaims him to be a service dog, and it is emblazoned with an official State of Michigan registered service-animal seal. (Michigan offers a new and voluntary ID registration program that very likely will be useful in situations where service dog fraud is suspected and businesses are frustrated.)

We've been lucky. For the most part, people in Evanston, a liberal, highly educated and remarkably enlightened community, readily accept Trooper as a genuine assistance animal.

Elsewhere we have run into difficulty, but only occasionally. A Skokie supermarket worker, for instance, snarled in passing that dogs weren’t allowed in the store, and Debby immediately lodged a complaint with the manager. (If you think I’m pugnacious, you should see her in action.)

One Chicago cab driver didn’t want to allow Trooper in his taxi, claiming that he wasn’t “big enough” to be a real service dog and anyway he would have to have his cab fumigated afterward. Debby quickly set him right, and there was no further trouble, especially since Trooper rode all the way home in my lap.

An overeager gatekeeper at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe insisted that both Trooper and I wear large green tags proving that we had been officially admitted. I protested. It felt as if we were being singled out and forced to wear a Scarlet Letter. It turned out afterward that the tags were entirely optional and intended to tip off security to the legitimacy of our presence. That’s security’s problem, I said, not mine. The Garden apologized and said it’d re-educate the help.

A hotel in Winslow, Arizona, said it would accept Trooper as a service dog provided I signed a pet release promising to reimburse the hotel if he trashed the place. He’s not a pet, I responded, but a working animal, an item of medical equipment that the IRS recognizes as a legitimate deduction. The hotel quickly backed down. I suspect the release may have been the hotel’s way of distinguishing genuine from false. No real service-animal handler, knowing the letter of the law, would sign such an document.

When presented with what might be a fake service dog, most business people just shrug. It’s easier for them to accept a possible fraud than suffer a lawsuit from a genuine service animal handler. Shops and restaurants can banish ill-behaved dogs, but it’s not always easy to distinguish between real and fake. 

I do think that whenever possible, it’s much more sensible for an service-dog handler to try to educate rather than litigate after incidents of discrimination—and that voluntary official identification schemes like Michigan’s are a step in the right direction.

Fortunately, some states are passing laws making service dog fraud a misdemeanor and, when repeated, a felony, although I have yet to hear of an actual case being brought against a pet owner.

Why is all this so important to me? Why are my hackles so easily raised?

Deaf people of my generation largely were raised to make as little noise as possible. Let your talents take you places, we were told. You're lucky to have them. Don't rock the boat by asking for more.

Times have changed. Not until well after my retirement ten years ago did I truly understand that I'm a member of a recognized minority—Persons with Disabilities. As with other minorities such as African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and members of the LGBTQ community, PWDs historically have achieved social justice only with much effort, including yelling and shouting, pushing and shoving. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed a quarter of a century ago, but there's still work to do.

Don’t ask us to be “patient” and “reasonable” in the face of discrimination, as well-meaning white Americans told civil rights firebrands back in the 1950s and '60s. Polite deference has never budged the privileged and entrenched.

We’re entitled to our rights. Now. Not at some vague time in a dim promised land.

That's why I'll make a fuss over discrimination.

1 comment:

  1. Boy I sure can relate. I've been going through similar situations like yours.