Monday, January 31, 2011

Commentary: Certification- A Myth in The USA

When I read this "GOLIATH is a five pound black Chihuahua, Department of Animal Services certified Assistance dog with a Canine Good Citizen Award from the American Kennel Club in Washington D.C." (from Dastardly Landlord Evicts Five Pound Service Dog On Christmas Day) I decided that this topic was beyond ripe for commentary.
There is no requirement in the ADA that a service dog be certified and there is no such thing as a national certification in the USA- period. Meaning there is no:
  • Nationally recognized, standardized test that dog and partner must pass in order to a service dog in the USA. 
  • Agreed upon industry set of behaviors or cues beyond those of standard obedience that a service dog must know
  • Standardized set of documentation that a person with a disability utilizing a service dog must have or be able to obtain before having a service dog
  • Requirement that a service dog team be registered in any database (hint these are money making schemes)
  • Requirement that a team have and or show any special ID, collar tags, leashes, harness or any other identifying articles
What does exist and always has since the term service animal found its way into our legal history in 1990 is a for an animal to be a service animal are requirement that the animal be trained(note the past tense here- service dog candidates, potentials or otherwise still in training hoping one day to be a service dog are not covered in the ADA definition of a service animal) to perform tasks to mitigate a person's disability and that the person meet the definition of a person with a disability as defined under the ADA also. What also exists are dog teams that are trained, placed and supported by programs staffed by people skilled in training and assessing both people with disabilities for the appropriateness of a service dog assistant and training/placing potential service dogs with the needed skills. So why does this myth of certification persist?

The United States has taken the procedural/ legal route to providing protections and rights to certain classes of people. People must go through (or be prepared to go through) certain processes to prove they meet the definition of a protected class or person entitle to certain rights. Service dogs are a tool utilized by some people with disabilities as a method of accommodating a disability allowing the person to better access public spaces and services. When the idea of service dogs first took hold in the U.S. following WWI with the introduction of dog guides for people who where blind all of these teams were trained and matched by the dog guide programs. These teams worked hard over the next decades to prove that they and their dogs were safe and non-disruptive in public while showing the general public what a capable person with a disability and a highly trained, well cared for dog can accomplish together. The program model with experienced trainers, veterinarians, and skilled disability service providers became what people associated with service dogs. As the industry expanded the types of disabilities a dog could be trained to assist with and the number of programs training them blossomed. Programs are only capable of training and placing dogs for people with disabilities meeting the skills that the trainers know how to train dogs for and have the time to train while trying to meet the needs of those already waiting. The demand for service dogs far exceeds the ability of the system to supply the with the average wait time somewhere between 2.5 and 5years. So some people with disabilities who could possibly benefit from the assistance of a service dog cannot  find a program with the time/resources to train a dog for them. Still others could get a dog from a program but can't fathom waiting for five years for help.

The assumption that certification exists extends from the procedural/ laws based cultural approach to providing accommodations/assistance to people with disabilities in the U.S. This approach says that only people who meet certain legal definitions and thresholds get accommodation and in order to get them they must prove (or be able to) that the meet the legal definition to request accommodations and that those accommodations are reasonable. This idea is contradicted by the idea that people should not have to prove who they are to have their civil rights. People with disabilities are allowed to use assistive equipment their need to mitigate their disabilities in the public sphere and are not required to have ID, papers, or be in some database to use them.  As with every other part of the ADA in order to enforce it or prove a violation one must file suit in a court of law. It is of course illegal to claim to be something you are not; it's called fraud. However, this is also something to be decided by the courts.
This does not mean we as a public and service dog teams are without any recourse. The DOJ has established Three questions that business owners and their staff may ask and supports a business owners right to ask that any service animal whose behavior presents a threat or whose behavior is not under proper control of the handler with a disability. Also, many places have ordinances meant to protect people from animals who are display dangerous behaviors or are not under control  of their owners. These laws apply to service dogs also. Just because a dog may be a service dog does not give it a free pass to bark, growl or bite people or other animals. Those of us who want to see the right of public access for people with disabilities maintained need to continue to work hard to show the public and businesses what a properly behaved and trained team behaves like and help them to understand that they too have rights. ID cards, vests, and patches are not what make a dog a service dog, anyone with a connection to the internet can get these. What makes a dog a service dog is health, the proper temperament, hundreds if not thousands of hours of training, and being partnered with a person with a disability protected under ADA who they assist.
Moral of the story anyone can buy and ID and a vest or pay for a piece of paper these are not your safeguards against poorly behaved animals, neither is trying to disallow every dog. Businesses and their staff must use common sense and speak up when a team is causing disturbances through more than just being there. A true handler will address their service dog's behavior. As we must ensure our service dog is as unobtrusive as possible... hearing the phrases:
"I didn't know a dog was here!"
"Did you see what that dog did to help him/her? It was wonderful/amazing!"
"I wish my dog was so [insert good, quiet, well behaved here]"
"Your dog is so well behaved!"
"Your dog is so well [insert cared for, clean, or well groomed here]"
Should make your day and tell you you've done it right! 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sitting in the Dark No More or It's the Little Things

Shiloh wheelchair pulling.
From Shiloh, Summit Assistance Dog
People are used to only hearing about service dogs when they do something considered heroic like call 9-1-1 or lead their person out of danger; while these events are important they usually only come to pass a few times in the span of a partnership. For myself and most other human halves of service dog, it is the everyday, ordinary assistance their partner provides that allows them to do things their disability makes extremely difficult, dangerous, and/or impossible without their service dog.
Shilo makes it possible for me to:
  • Get through doors without having to make multiple attempts to get the door open wide enough to catch the frame with my chair, smashing my toes and/or fingers, and not having to wonder whether opening this door will cause my failing shoulder to spasm rendering it useless for an indeterminable amount of time. 
  •  Turn lights on/off as needed. Before service dogs I would often opt to either try and function in the dark or leave lights on because it was too difficult reach the lights. Not being able to see to  maneuver is especially dangerous for people  with balance problems like me. Shilo has learned to turn lights on/off as needed learning to turn on or off lights just behind or in front of my path.
  • Retrieve Items. It is true that service dogs retrieve and return items dropped by their partners but their can also retrieve items from out of reach, difficult to get to, or far away spots.
  • Be alone and still know if the worst happens someone is there who can and will help. Many people with disabilities long ago reluctantly resigned themselves to the fact that they couldn't have any real privacy or enjoy being alone, because being alone meant the fear of falling or having a medical incident with no one around to help. When one has a service there is always someone around whose main focus and concern is you and who is trained to do something about such dangerous happenings.
  • Meeting your own needs and wants when you have them. Many disabilities make it extremely difficult or impossible to answer one's basic needs or tasks of personal comfort without assistance such as putting clothes on/off and to regulate body temperature, getting something to drink or eat, changing body position by  assisting in sitting up, rolling over, or shifting positions.Service dogs are often trained with these types of activities.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Job Interviews with a Service Dog

Since being partnered with Shilo my work situation has consisted of multiple part time positions. My main position with the University Center For Excellence in Developmental Disabilities began two months after Shilo and I were partnered, so we interviewed for the job as a packaged deal. The job began with  .3 time or 12 hours a week and within six months I was bumped up to.5 or 20 hours a week. It is hard to meet all of one's financial obligations on half time, I continued to look for other part time work and found a job as a facilitator/ data collection specialist for a research project out of OHSU for the Healing Pathways project testing and facilitating a peer facilitated strengths-based curriculum for women with physical disabilities who are also dealing with depression. This job was contract work for a set amount of hours and pay with the average being ten hours a week for the last year and a half. As this contract comes to a close, I need to fill the gap that it creates in my income so it's back to the job hunt!
Job hunting for a person with a disability can be daunting even in the best of times, though the current economic woes in the US (9.8% according to the Bureau of Labor statistics in Nov. 2010) as a whole and the even more dismal picture of employment in my home state of Oregon  (10.6% for Nov 2010 according to Oregon Labor Market Information System) can make it feel like a gladiator fight to the finish.   I have been working and interviewing with a service dog or service dog in training in tow for over a decade. I know for some people the question arises whether or no they should go to the interview with their service dog, because it brands them as a person with a disability especially when their disability is not readily apparent. The decision of how and when to disclose details about a disability is a deeply person one often with far reaching implications. My disability just happens to be very apparent so any employer or potential employer knows there is something. Therefore, I put my service dog in the same category as my wheelchair, where I am it is.

Preparing for a Job Interview:
When I am preparing for a job interview I have a routine:
  • Research the company and identify points of interest, questions I have, skills I feel based on my research I can contribute
  • Prepare my professional portfolio
  • Pack any requested application materials in my bag
  • Look up directions
  • Pick out my clothes
  • Wash my wheelchair upholstery
  • Wash Shilo's Gear
  • Brush/Groom Shilo
It is very important when going on a job interview with your service dog that your dog be just as dressed and groomed to impress as you are. It is also very important that your service dog be on it's very best behavior--All Business. In the space of an interview you and your service dog can show an interview that you and your service dog can work quickly, quietly and unobtrusively.  You should also be prepared to answer the three questions per the DOJ Business Brief: 1) Is that a Service Dog? 2) Are you a Person with a disability(as defined under the ADA)? 3) What Tasks does your dog perform?  Nowhere do questions 2 or 3 require a person to disclose what their disability is; however, some handlers may have to think carefully about how they describe the work their dog is trained to do to avoid disclosing their disability.