a11 – Invisible disability

By Jacque Cormier

Service dogs are like vitamins. They are not federally regulated, and not covered by insurance even when deemed necessary by a medical professional. But the role they play is crucial and many people rely on them to live. Here’s a personal example:

In my late 30’s I became too sick to care for myself and it became increasingly impossible for me to go out in public. So, I went to a doctor and had a lot of tests done before my doctors discovered that I was iron, D3 and B12 deficient. To alleviate these symptoms that prevented me from being able to live a healthy life, because yes…anemia can kill you and does kill Americans every year, they prescribed vitamins. My insurance, like most, doesn’t cover these vitamins that I need to live, even with the blood work from my doctor proving that I need them. The lack of federal regulation on vitamins, also means that the companies who make them have a lot of leeway for the quality and cost of their products. So yes, I could conceivably take an iron supplement, that I need to live, that my doctor prescribes, that doesn’t contain any iron and I will have to pay an unregulated amount of money for.

This article, isn’t about vitamins. It’s about expanding our knowledge of service dogs and their value in our beautifully diverse human society. But I would like you to keep my vitamin example in your mind as I move forward.

Because like my anemia many disabilities are not visible. And despite most of the media portrayals of service dogs being golden labs guiding an obviously impaired individual, many service tasks do not require that the dog be large. Examples include dogs that monitor blood sugar levels, heart rate, alert to allergens or can sense an oncoming seizure. Service training also does not require that the dog be a specific breed. The ADA specifically states that service dogs cannot be discriminated against based on their breed. The dogs’ breed and size is often chosen to fit the lifestyle of their handler and the nature of their work. 

I am a small person, I drive a small car, ride a small folding bicycle and often travel for work.

My new service dog is small, shocking I know. It is also easier for him to do his job if he is carried. This gives him access to my face, and prevents him from being stepped on, petted, or distracted by the well-meaning but uninformed public. Yes, he is still a service animal in a sweater, because it’s snowing. And yes, he was still a service animal when his leg was in a splint. Being a service animal doesn’t make him invincible, and he may need eye protection or foot coverings to do his job. Wearing these things in public, even if you think it’s cute, doesn’t mean he is not a ‘real’ service dog. Please let go of the idea that a service dog must look or do a certain thing for the handler’s disability to be real and valid. And please stop looking for an excuse to call out ‘fake service animals.’ And please, please, I do not want to have a conversation with my cashier that my service dog is ‘just doing it for the treat.’

I just want to buy my gluten free quick oats and leave.

Another misconception is that service animals work for free. People and animals don’t work like programs in hacker movies. There is no montage scene where we tweak the code and once done, it provides predictable output forever. The nature of service training is that it is unique to the handler’s needs and is ongoing. Successful execution of training needs or be marked to communicate to the animal that it is desirable and so the animal will continue to do the job. 

This is the long way to say yes, it is appropriate for a service animal, in public, that has just performed its task, that you probably didn’t recognize it did, to be treated or praised. Hugging my service animal in public does not mean he is not a real service animal.

To most of the public, both my disability and my service animal’s job is invisible.

If I take my iron supplement, my blood tests do not show that I am anemic. This is literally why I take them.

If my service dog is doing his job, then I do not appear disabled. 

This is the entire nature of our relationship and why I have dedicated so much of my time and money into his training. I do not want to be disabled; I do not want to be prohibited from living an independent life. The tasks of many service dogs follow this invisible example, and the public blithely assumes the animal is not working. Or that it is a pet that I have cheekily snuck in. Here’s another personal example:

In my late 30’s I became too sick to care for myself and it became impossible for me to go out in public. So, I went to a whole lot of doctors, and did a bunch of tests before my doctors discovered the names for my disabilities. This took three years. To alleviate the symptoms that were preventing me from being able to live a healthy life, because yes undiagnosed mental illness can kill you and does in fact, kill a lot of Americans every year, they made a treatment plan for me that included medication and the support of a service animal. My insurance, like most, doesn’t cover the costs of a service animal, even with years’ worth of data and studies proving the efficacy of service dogs for my disability. The lack of federal regulation on service dogs and their training means that the companies that train them have a lot of leeway for the quality and price of their products. So yes, I could conceivably pay upwards of $50k, for the trained service dog, that I need to live a functional independent life, that my doctors prove I need but to you its ‘just a pet’. 

It’s also ‘just a vitamin’, but without access to it, federal regulation or not, many people, many Americans, die every year. 

No one disputes my anemia when I’m in the Whole Foods buying wheat free vegan vitamins imported from Germany out of pocket. So why is my not-a-golden-retriever service dog so hard to swallow?

Most shoppers would not notice if my heart rate increased or if my breathing became quick and shallow or if I started to perspire or disassociate from my surroundings. Because I have not yet fainted or vomited, they assume I am fine. They also assume that, when my dog licks my nose or jumps up to put a paw on my leg, that he is being poorly behaved. And yet another uncharitable assumption is that, when I mark this behavior, that has just saved me from a public incident, with a treat or praise that he is ‘a spoiled dog.’ Comments along this theme are precisely why we do not see more service animals in public spaces. The constant micro-aggressions that accompany having a not yellow lab in a guide harness style service dog actively prohibit disabled people from public spaces in the same way that failing to provide wheelchair accessible bathrooms and entranceways do. 

Let’s change this. 

Because, like our neuro-typical counter parts, we deserve to hate shopping for all the regular reasons.

Let’s update our perception and validity of service dogs.