Medical equipment comes in many forms to help mitigate many types of disabilities. There are wheelchairs, insulin pumps, canes, oxygen tanks, and more. There are also dogs. Yes, those cute, cuddly, lovable creatures that many of us just ooh and ahh over. As a dog lover myself, I definitely get that big smile and sometimes the giggles as I see a cute pup or a breed I love walking down the street or playing with their owner in the park. However, there's a big difference between a pet dog and a service dog. The latter is, indeed, medical equipment.
When my service dog, Sulley, gears up and we head out that door, he is working. He's no longer just a dog. Really, he isn't a dog anymore. He's my highly trained and very much needed medical equipment. He is my monitor for my anxiety levels to let me know before it gets out of control. He is my guide when fibromyalgia leaves me in a heavy fog and I can't think or function well. He's my movement when my legs feel like they are on fire, or when I'm extremely fatigued from living with chronic pain. He's my hands when I drop something and I worry that bending down will mean vertigo and a possible fall. He becomes as much an extension of me as any other medical equipment does for another disabled individual. He serves a very important purpose: to keep me safe and able to live my life.
Recently we took a trip to one of our favorite places, Disneyland! Sulley loves it because it means lots of work. The crowds, the noises, and other distractions can be very triggering and very difficult for me to deal with. Without Sulley, there's no chance I would be capable of going and enjoying as much of it as I do. There's another aspect of it, though, beyond the basic over-stimulation of the parks, that makes it tough for me as a disabled individual who uses medical equipment—particularly the kind that is furry with a beating heart.
"Oh my gosh! Quick, kids! Look at the doggie! Look, look, look! Say, 'Hi, doggie!' He's so cute!"
Now, some of you might not understand what the big deal is. A parent is simply helping her children to enjoy a moment of a very adorable dog passing by. They might not even be encouraging their kids to pet, though that does happen despite Sulley's multiple stop signs and "do not pet" patches affixed to his vest and harness. Fortunately, this is such a frequent occurrence that I can share a few things that have happened in the past.
1) Due to my panic disorder, I startle extremely easily. Loud screams, even of joy, can cause me to fall and hurt myself, cause a panic attack, cause me to have such a sudden burst—then decrease—of adrenaline that it leaves me very dizzy and fatigued.
2) These noises can distract my service dog from his job due to him needing to investigate the sound, even for a second, to determine what caused it. If he's in the middle of mobility work and needs to turn quickly to investigate a sound, that can put me in harm's way.
3) He could attempt to seek attention, as he is still a dog and has off days, which would require me to correct him.
In these situations, I do my best to make a short but educational statement to people while still moving on. Confrontation is very taxing on me and can trigger my anxiety, so by keeping it short and to the point, I hope to avoid any medical issues on my end. This, in turn, makes it so the cute dog they want to enjoy doesn't have to work harder after an anxiety attack from a confrontation.
"Do not distract my service dog. He's working."
My point here is clear, at least to me.
1) Do not distract my service dog. (This is a service dog who needs to focus.)
2) He's working. (This dog has a job.)
|Sulley after retrieving a credit card on the floor and placing it back on the counter.|
This particular trip, it dawned on me that there was something happening with these exchanges. They didn't see or hear "service dog." They saw and heard "service dog." No emphasis in the world would help them see past the word that meant "adorable fluffy plaything here for my entertainment." They couldn't see the harm in greeting, petting, calling a dog. Obviously, he's friendly and not a biter. What's the harm? They saw a dog. They didn't see medical equipment.
The remainder of the trip, I practiced. I do my best to practice responses to people so that my anxiety won't get in the way of what I want to say. The rest of the day and back at the hotel room, I practiced. I asked friends to randomly pop questions about my dog at me. I failed at responses over and over, and grinned when I would finally get one right. The next day, I felt a bit better. I felt nervous, but ready to deliver my new responses to the public when they intruded on my day.
|Sulley doing deep pressure therapy to lessen a fibromyalgia flare or panic attack.|
Deep breaths. You've got this. You practiced countless times.
"I don't feel comfortable discussing my medical equipment."
She looks confused. Please go away ...
"No, no. I mean your dog!"
More deep breaths. Stay calm, you've got this!
"No, you mean my medical equipment."
NAILED IT! Did you see that lightbulb come on?!
Just as the employee scowled a bit and rolled her eyes, there was a pause. I could see it click in her head. She never even thought that the dog, my dog, was medical equipment. It lit a fire in me. The rest of the day, I struggled through getting the proper words out. It began to get a bit easier. I began plotting new ways to say things. What to say if someone said something terrible back to me. It was brilliant!
I felt confident and self assured that I could handle these confrontations. More and more people throughout the day had their lights turned on. Even if it was just a teeny spark, it happened every single time. Something that never happened when I explained him as a service dog.
"Ma'am, keep your child away from my medical equipment."
"Sir, do not distract my medical equipment."
"Interfering with my medical equipment is a crime."
"I am not comfortable discussing my medical equipment." (Insert rude reply.) " ... And that is why I am not comfortable. Good day!"
On an ending note, I would like to point out that never once do I say "sorry" or "please." When it comes to my safety and that of my dedicated medical equipment, it is never, ever a request. I also will not apologize for not wanting to be grilled about my medical equipment, or having it played with or distracted. This does not make me rude. It makes the person forcing their way into my personal space, and interfering with Sulley, rude.
No one, disabled or otherwise, deserves to feel intruded upon or made into a spectacle. Remember that service dogs are medical equipment, and respect their and their handlers' space.