Recently, an article in the American Association of People with Disabilities Newsletter (January 3, 2011) about a Northern Virginia elementary school denying 12-year-old Andrew Stevens the right to bring his seizure alert assistance dog to school caught my attention.
The newsletter gave a link to this article written by FOX 5 Reporter Stacey Cohan which reported that Andrew and his family waited two years and raised $20,000 to get his assistance dog. The family had hoped that Andrew’s assistance dog would provide an array of services to him, including reconnecting Andrew with his peers. Instead, Andrew had been denied the use of his assistance dog at school. The school had created yet another barrier for this young man and his family to overcome.
I do not know all of the details surrounding this situation. However, as an individual with a disability who grew up as a wheelchair user, it is all too familiar. It so disheartening to hear Andrew’s story and to imagine the struggles he and his family are enduring on a daily basis.
If you grew up with a disability then you know the endless number of barriers that can be placed in our way as we strive to gain an education and begin to make our way in this world. Being fortunate enough to receive an assistance dog can be a great opportunity to relieve some of the daily pitfalls and struggles.
Public schools are supposed to be a resource and a place of security for all children and youth. It is a place where our most valuable asset, our youth, learn valuable life lessons and gather the skills necessary to enable them to move forward into their adult lives. It is so sad to think that this elementary school is playing such a negative role in this young man’s life. Unfortunately, their bureaucratic actions are reinforcing inequality, vulnerability, and downright unfair treatment of children with disabilities.
What lifelong lesson are these public officials teaching Andrew, his family and perhaps more sadly, his peers? I hope Andrew’s parents have the stamina necessary to finish this fight. I hope they will be able to teach the school district administrators that they cannot discriminate against a student with a disability who needs an assistance dog. And more importantly, I hope it will teach Andrew that he is a valued as much as every other student at his school and he has the right to have his assistance dog by his side.
We must unite to dispel the myth that children with disabilities should not have the services and equipment necessary to make them as independent as they choose to be. We must clearly communicate that this school district’s staff response is not acceptable and there are consequences in Virginia and the United States for this archaic, discriminatory behavior.
I just found out that after Andrew and his mother appeared on the TODAY show yesterday (January 4), the school officials decided to let Andrew have his service dog with him at school, at least on a trial basis. My concern is that three to six weeks may not be long enough, and that they should allow more time for a fair test.
Andrew’s story has received nationwide media attention. My hope is that it will help educate more people about the benefits of highly trained service dogs.
To my chagrin, I am facing 2011 with an all too familiar New Year’s resolution to lose weight. Mind you, this is the same New Year’s resolution that I have proclaimed every year since I became a wheelchair user at age six. As a sedentary individual with a love for food, weight is always an ongoing issue for me.
As the old year ended this weekend and I pondered my New Year’s resolutions, I received a large brown envelope in the mail from my service dog provider agency, Paws With A Cause.
You can imagine my surprise when I perused the official correspondence from PAWS declaring that Whistle must be within HIS target weight or it could jeopardize his recertification process. PAWS requires each service dog team to renew its public access certification every 18-24 months throughout the working life of an assistance dog. Although during each recertification process, I have to report Whistle’s weight, this is the first time that PAWS has declared a target weight policy. This new policy states:
The health, well-being and longevity of your Assistance Dog are dependent on keeping your dog within its target weight. Even a slight increase in weight can dramatically impact the working life of your Assistance Dog! PAWS and your veterinarian will help you monitor this for the lifetime of your dog. Certification and recertification will include verification that your dog is within their approved weight range.
Certification/recertification will be delayed if your dog is 15-20% above its target weight. Certification along with your dog’s harnesses and ID card will be removed if your dog is 20% or more over their target weight.
Whistle’s target weight is 68 pounds. 15% over would be 78 pounds and 20% would be 82 pounds. Yikes, I guess this means that Whistle has a date with the scale at our vet’s office and he will be joining me with a New Year’s weight loss resolution of his own!
I know weight is a serious issue for all beings, including humans and canines. However, this is the first time, as far as I know, that my service dog agency has declared weight management as a policy much less instituted consequences for noncompliance with this policy.
If your dog is more than 15% over its target weight, please seek veterinary counsel in determining a safe weight reduction plan. Monthly weigh-ins must be initialed by a staff member at your veterinary hospital, and the veterinary staff should scan and email or fax this form to PAWS.
Whistle is definitely not the sleek 2-year-old golden/lab that arrived almost 4 years ago. He will be six years old on April 1, 2011 and I have noticed he is not as spry as he was a year ago. He has also gained a few pounds over the years. This new policy will definitely motivate me to be more cognizant of his weight which in turn, will hopefully help me to be more cognizant of my own weight loss issues. Whistle and I both have some serious work to do to reach and maintain our target weight goals in 2011!
I love learning about new technology that can help make my life easier, especially when it pertains to living with a disability. The December 2010 issue of New Mobility magazine published an article by Justin Moninger entitled, “5 Things to Make Life Easier.”
He based the list on the five essentials that helped him to get back to living an active life after his spinal cord injury. Would you believe that a service dog was the number one essential on his list? I sure would!
He attributes his service dog, Rocky, with getting him back into mainstream society and helping him with a host of tasks both inside and outside his home. Moninger talks about how he underestimated what a great emotional support Rocky would be to him.
It takes me back to my own experience when I received my first service dog, Ramona. I had been living with a disability since I was six years old. I thought I was independent. I had a wonderful husband and a job I loved. Life was great. But, I didn’t really understand all the things I had been missing until Ramona came into my life. Ramona gave me a higher level of independence that I didn’t even know existed.
As the year comes to an end and I think of all the things I am thankful for, my retired service dog, Morgan, and my current service dog, Whistle, are at the top of my list. Living side by side with a service dog is life changing. It is a partnership that enables people with disabilities to fulfill dreams and lifelong goals that were once thought to be unobtainable.
Service dogs are not perfect and they are not robots. It takes a great deal of work and commitment to fully engage in a working relationship with a service animal. I truly appreciate Anatole France’s statement that “until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” I would even take it one step further and say that until someone with a disability has been partnered with a service dog, a part of their life remains suppressed.
Thank you to everyone who contributes to the birth, growth, development, and success of assistance dogs throughout the world! Whistle and I wish everyone a Happy and Healthy New Year!