James, Service Animal Certification, and Access Challenges

I don’t drink coffee. I’m often cautioned  that those four words are the vilest blasphemy. I’m likely to be in trouble, should I travel to countries where this hot bean juice is even more tightly woven into the fabric of society. Ordinarily, I have little reason to visit Seattle’s best known coffee slinger. However, on this day I was meeting a friend, and we needed WiFi. I arrived at Starbucks early and set up at a table that someone had conveniently just vacated. I had my backpack which carried the laptop and an assortment of cables I used to power, charge and prepare a variety of devices – all of these were with me, as well. I had time to kill, so why not charge the toys, right?

Several minutes later, three men came in and they were clearly looking for a good spot to hang out. One of them spoke to me, “Do you need this chair?” He referred to a chair directly opposite from where I sat. I didn’t need it, especially since the friend I waited for would be in a wheelchair – much fancier and more comfortable than the almost parochial chairs that this Starbucks location provided. The plush furniture that Starbucks was once known for – apparently never made it to this location. I told him, “Enjoy!” The thin, thirty-ish guy thanked me and claimed space (with his two friends, very nearby – no table, just space near where I had set up base camp.

They spoke animatedly and not quietly about a variety of topics. Every so often, one or another would mention the VA hospital or NYU (another prominent healthcare facility in Manhattan) and medications – some I knew of. When one of them said, “TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury),” I decided to inquire, “Guys, are you Veterans?” All three nodded affirmatively and I told them, “I couldn’t help but overhear. It sounded as though you might be, but when the term TBI was tossed around, I thought it possible…”

The person that had asked for the chair, responded first, “We’re all vets, but only we (he motioned at one of the other guys) have TBIs. I have seizures and I’m sensitive to light.” I wanted to introduce myself and get their names. It feels weird to not exchange names. In my experience, not following this convention happens most often where people are focusing on their dogs, like at a dog park. There, people are known as their dog’s “Mom or Dad,” so it’s common for someone to be known as, “Jesse’s Dad.” The two guys wth TBIs were suddenly very conscious of the time and were hurriedly preparing to leave, citing a meeting they needed to attend. Two of them took my contact info, but I only got the name and cell number for one of the veteran’s – after they left, one of the guys called and shared his name.

“James” and I spoke soon thereafter, he had apparently fixated on my familiarity with TBI and I explained that I train service animals, and have worked with veterans and other people who have had brain injuries. James explained that, “I have a dog that I want to use as my service animal, but I need to have her certified before I can have her with me.” For clarification, I asked James, “Are you referring to a document from a service animal trainer certifying that your dog is a service animal?” I smiled and told him, “I have a gift for you.” James excitedly asked, “You will certify my dog?” I told him that, “My gift to you is sharing that public accommodations, like this Starbucks and other establishments that you and I might frequent – they are not allowed to request certification. If you like, I can refer you to the information, online.” I made a mental note to send him a link.

James shared some of his thoughts and feelings about partnering with a service animal. He hadn’t spent time with any other veterans (or other disabled people) with service animals. James asked me, “Dennis, what happens if someone doesn’t want to let me into their business because of my service dog?” I sighed and responded, “It will happen, James. Most people typically go into the same places of public accommodation, repeatedly. People will learn and remember you. You are unlikely to be repeatedly challenged, in the places you go to, regularly. It’s true that these places should know their rights and responsibilities, but in a very practical sense, you are going to be part of their educational process.” As I’m speaking to James, he seemed to get a little agitated, so I asked, “You seem to be a little concerned about what we call “public access challenges,” James. What are you thinking? Now, it was James’ turn to sigh. “Since my TBI, I get really angry and have seizures. I’m concerned that someone is going to create a scene and I’m going to see red, or possibly have a seizure because of the stress.” I don’t want to be embarrassed, get pissed off, or start thinking about hurting someone who is infringing on my rights. Why don’t people just do their jobs and follow the law?” I suspected James’ question was only partially rhetorical, so I offered this comment, “As a society, we have welcomed dogs onto the scene, in different capacities. Still, not everyone is comfortable. Many people are uncomfortable with people with disabilities, even though it’s likely that we all will have to deal with disability, if we live long enough. Some of us are uncomfortable with the greater integration of dogs into community life. some object for a variety of cultural, religious and sometimes historical reasons. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 199o is the chief civil rights law and covers most of the bases that you and I will discuss. Twenty six years after the first President Bush signed it into law, we’re still trying to work the kinks out of the system. We have people with improperly trained dogs passing their dogs off as service animals. We have people trying to pass off their cats as service animals – cats are not currently considered service animals, yet miniature horses can be. American culture is not particularly focused on dog training and appropriate social interactions with dogs, generally. We don’t do well with disabled people – this is at the core of it all. People supporting inclusion. If we were more inclusive, we would have fewer ridiculous interactions about these dogs. The point is NOT the dog. The point is the PERSON. People have the rights. We have integrated these dogs into the mix, but for all of the warm and fuzzy feelings that so many of us have for the dogs – they are considered medically assistive devices, much as one might consider a wheelchair. I understand the frustration and the anger at being challenged to exist in a space with a service animal, James. It’s part of why I haven’t openly partnered with a service animal for many years.”

I, like James, have what can be considered invisible disabilities. Since you can’t really expect people to consider things that they don’t see, it’s necessary to make statements about being disabled, ask for accommodation(s) and, fortunately or unfortunately be willing to educate people and self-advocate. It’s not always the burden it may seem to be. There are humorous moments. Sometimes, people simply get it. I swore that I’d never partner with a service animal again, while living in NYC. I’m considering it, now.

James seemed satisfied by my response. He had another question, though. “Dennis, what do I do if someone tries to force me to leave because of my service animal?” “James,” I said, “Take a look at the information available, online and in libraries. The Department of Justice has excellent guidance for disabled people, as well as places of public accommodation with regard to rights and responsibilities. Develop a community of supportive people. Call them, or call me. In the immediate moment, just leave. Nothing going on in that place is likely to be so critical that is worthy of the stress and potential legal consequences of you ‘going nuclear!’ We can talk about where the training that you and your dog can address many of your concerns, without you needing to say much, in most circumstances. Like actors on a stage, I can teach you how to respond and what to do, if people persist in violating your civil rights.”

In my next posting, I’ll share what happens when James asks me to teach him more about public access challenges. I introduce him to a friend – Bo, the demo dog.





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