Hello Nicole – August 2001

Hello Nicole, I’ve been working on getting a service dog. In my research, I have run across several organizations who […]

Hello Nicole,

I’ve been working on getting a service dog. In my research, I have run across several organizations who claim that one benefit of a service dog is that having a dog at my side will draw attention away from my wheelchair. The organizations all phrase it a little differently: some say a dog will make my wheelchair invisible! Some say a dog will help people feel more comfortable approaching me in my wheelchair. Some say people will stare at the dog and not the wheelchair. A lot of the time they have “testimonials” from people in wheelchairs proclaiming this. However, this is not one of the things I wanted a dog for! Isn’t there something wrong with this line of thinking? I find it insulting.

Sincerely, Wheelchair Visible

Dear Visible,

Yes, I think there is something wrong with this line of thinking because it perpetuates the idea that we should seek to hide or distract others from our disabilities in order to be more socially acceptable. Although I’m sure having a dog at your side will draw a different type of attention than you would get without a dog, whether or not this attention is truly positive and whether an organization should advertise this as a benefit, is another issue.

Many people find animals interesting, so any animal can be a great ice-breaker in social settings. I find nothing wrong with the notion that a service animal could benefit someone in this way, especially considering that many people feel uncomfortable around a person with a disability, and likewise, many people with disabilities feel uncomfortable in public. However, it’s important to remember that the reason for this discomfort is a long standing belief that having a disability is inherently wrong, shameful and frightening. Up until recently, it’s been considered acceptable and even necessary to hide people with disabilities in back rooms and institutions “for their own good.” Or, as Jerry Lewis puts it, “If you don’t want to be pitied, stay in your house!”

Considering how frightening the stereotypical view of disability is, Jerry has a point: when we go out in public we are very likely to encounter pity, staring and ostracism. Recently, an able-bodied friend said that he would rather die than become disabled. His reason was that he didn’t want to spend 24 hours a day in an apartment waiting to be taken care of. Confused, I said, “But, you know many people with disabilities that live full, active lives, why do you think you would end up alone in an apartment?” He said he just couldn’t shake the fact that he’d been “born knowing” that people with disabilities spent their lives begging for help, having nothing to live for, and being treated like freaks!

Misconceptions about disability are so ingrained that it’s hard to think differently. Yet, we have no chance of breaking free of this oppression if we do not address the prejudice and demand dignity in spite of our uncertainty. Already, it’s evident that as more of us enter society we are changing people’s perceptions of disability. Children with disabilities today have a vastly more optimistic outlook for their future than children with disabilities did just twenty years ago. But there is much more work to be done and it isn’t easy, especially when we ourselves have been taught that people with disabilities are in-valid or less-than human beings.

To the extent that we are unsure of our adequacy, we will have a harder time dealing with the outward expressions of prejudice. If some people with disabilities find it easier to leave their homes with a dog to distract attention away from their wheelchairs, so be it. For myself, I would be very leery of attention I received by having a service dog. I would question whether the attention I’m getting is not so much because people like animals, but because people find it inspirational to see a poor crippled girl with a saintly dog to help her. Similarly, an organization who trains service animals needs to be careful not to capitalize on this pity-factor. As Jerry Lewis says, “If it’s pity, we’ll get money” and it is always a challenge for a helping organization to raise funds without demeaning (i.e. eliciting pity for) those they serve.

Any type of advertising that a service animal will make a wheelchair invisible is irresponsible and insulting to the disability community. It reinforces the old and harmful view of disability as something shameful that we would be better off hiding. There is no excuse for an organization that does not examine the ramifications of the images of disability they publicize. If they truly want to help, they will realize that there is nothing the disability community needs more than to know we have nothing to hide.

— Nicole