There is a common misconception that service dog handlers aren’t able to properly care for their dogs. This often misleads people into thinking that service dogs can’t have fun because their handlers aren’t able to get their dogs out.

Service dog handlers find ways to make things work. Being disabled does not mean they are not able – it just means they might do things a bit differently. Their dogs are better cared for than most dogs I know.

That should really be the end of that answer. No one should be questioning the abilities any disabled person has.

This is the beginning of a more important conversation, however. I’ll answer the question in part two.

But first…..

It’s time to talk about disabilities

I had the honor and opportunity to join Team Kuno at Telus World of Science Dark Matters last November. We were there to engage the public in discussion regarding disabilities and accessibility. It was an interesting evening that was very insightful in many ways.

A Social Experiment at Telus World of Science

Normally, Tzila doesn’t get to engage with the public much. She gets to meet people on occasion, but she can still get excitable sometimes so these kinds of interactions are limited. This event was a new situation for both of us, because the purpose was to engage with attendees. People were thrilled to meet Kuno and Tzila, both Alberta qualified service dogs, and to interact with them.

A black lab sits with an oven mitt in her mouthTzila and I were set up to play a game with the visitors. The goal was for a guest to pick up a stick using an oven mitt. This was meant to simulate living with a disability such as neuropathy, arthritis or dystonia, to name only a few examples. We made it more challenging by having Tzila compete with them to see who could be the first to pick the stick up. It added a level of fun to the situation, and her presence enticed people to come over and talk to us.

Tzila won almost every time. The times she didn’t were due to one participant being given an easier time due to already having reduced hand mobility, and another time Tzila got distracted and tried to steal someone else’s stick. It was a hilarious demonstration of how sometimes the tools don’t always work the way they should!

Disabilities don’t play fair

Participants were asked how they felt about the game after, and most felt a combination of frustration, humbleness, and embarrassment. Others felt that Tzila had an unfair advantage of being so close to the ground already. There were also comments that participants didn’t have time to practice with their “disabled” hand before playing. How many people get to practice being disabled? How fair is it for people to live with a disability to begin with? Disability doesn’t play fair – and that point really hit home with many people.

This was meant to open up conversation, and this was where I was very intrigued by the results.

The Results

There were typically two types of responses. One type was from people who were in the field of helping people with disabilities, or people with disabilities themselves who encouraged their friends to participate in the exercise. These were the people that engaged the most. We had some valuable discussions regarding accessibility, about tools that can help people, and about the barriers people with disabilities face on a regular basis. This group of people were aware of the struggles people can be faced with day to day, and they had some great ideas to bring to the discussion.

The other kind of response, on the other hand, was to shut down. They tried the exercise, and when they realized how humbling the experience was they no longer wanted to engage. The exception was to talk about Tzila, who is literally a tool to help mitigate the disabilities that they didn’t want to talk about.

What happened?

Did they not want to talk about it because it was uncomfortable? Or perhaps they didn’t think it affected them? Everyone knows someone who is disabled, even if they might not be aware that someone they know is disabled.

That moment of frustration/embarrassment they were faced with is something that many people with physical restrictions live with every day. People just don’t know the struggle of not being able to reach the debit machine when they pay for their goods. They don’t realize how difficult life gets when you are not able to pick up items they drop. You just don’t think about not having access to a store or restaurant because there’s a small step to get inside that many people can’t overcome.

These are common scenarios that happen to people daily, but they aren’t talked about nearly enough. The more people talk about it, perhaps more will be done to include those who are consistently left behind. “No one should be left behind” is phrasing that is used often, yet time and again there are access barriers which prevent amazing people from partaking in a society that boasts inclusivity with no follow through. This lack of accessibility isn’t welcoming – in fact, it tells people that they are not important enough to consider including.

Are we ready to talk about disabilities now?

People are often quick to comment without compassion. Comments such as:

“What is that person doing outside on a day like today? They should be home!” (Referring to an elderly gentleman who got stuck in the snow on a sidewalk no one had cleared off.)

Or

“They can just order out” (Referring to people with mobility struggles that are not able to access a restaurant because it only has steps with no ramps or elevators)

Or

“That lady fell over, she must be drunk!” (Referring to a lady that had a presyncope event while pumping gas and couldn’t catch her balance in time and fell ass over teakettle.)

(That last lady was me, by the way, and I absolutely overheard the comment from the pump across from me.)

Many comments such as these float around both in normal conversation and on social media. For a country that boasts inclusivity so highly, there are an awful lot of barriers that people are faced with daily. The conversations regarding these issues aren’t as inclusive as they should be. This was the reason we rallied around Marla and Kuno to spread this message. We should be able to have these conversations in a hypothetical environment like this demonstration. The fact that we can’t openly discuss these barriers shows how much work remains to be done as a society.

Broadcasting to the wider range doesn’t make an impact unless you can get through to the individuals within that scope. It is important to have one-on-one conversations in order to truly help people understand that when anyone is left behind, so is everyone else. We can’t move forward together unless we stick together.

How do we move forward?

We can start by flipping the script.

“This person can’t get through the snow in their wheelchair, we need to clear it faster!”

Or

“That guy can’t get into our restaurant! Can we build a ramp so he can?”

Or

“That lady looks unwell. I’m going to check on her to see if I can help.” (By the way, the employee working the station came running out to check on me and make sure I was ok. He won the day.)

It’s really not difficult.

We are the lucky ones

With service dogs, handlers are faced with other comments unrelated to their disabilities.

“You’re so lucky you can have your dog everywhere!”

Sure, I guess am “lucky” to have my dog with me so she can help when I need her. I am “lucky” because I was able to train her and I was able to afford her. I am not lucky, however, that I need her in order to function as well as I do. The key that many people are missing is the disability that exists alongside the need for a service dog, which NO ONE wants. Many also do not want the responsibility of having to train their companion animal to the same standards of service dogs. People love to talk about the dog, but not the disabilities the dog is meant to help.

Why is this conversation such a hard one to have?

Living with disabilities is an uncomfortable idea, and people like to stay in their comfort zone.

There are many tools that can help improve people’s quality of life, such as service dogs, wheelchairs, walkers, grab-sticks and so much more. These tools are not always accessible to the people who could use them most, though. Financial considerations are often the biggest reason that people are unable to procure these tools and they struggle more than they need to. Many people living with disabilities live in poverty. It can be hard to afford simple basics, nevermind the costs that can incur to maintain health. How does a person afford medications when they are unable to work and have no benefits to cover the cost, and can barely afford food for themselves? What about the cost of a wheelchair or other mobility device? Repairs?

The social programs are not enough. People are struggling and do not have a way to get ahead.

How did we get here?

Years ago, anyone that seemed even remotely “different” were hidden away. “Different” could mean two different colored eyes, or visually disfigured, or socially awkward. Authoritative figures defined what they believed was “normal”. Anyone that did not fit into that definition were hidden, burned as witches, locked away or otherwise segregated from the rest of the population. These segregating policies became a system, and the medieval beliefs this system was built on have been passed down through generations.

Things have changed, and are still changing, but they have not changed enough. People have recognized that segregation is inhumane, yet discrimination and segregation still exists in many social circles. While disabled people are included in society more, they are still being left behind with poor excuses to avoid addressing the issues.

We still have a long way to go to include everyone.

You can help: Be part of the conversation.

A great place to start is to follow Kuno on social media. Him and his handler are strong advocates for people with disabilities, and together they are bringing attention to the barriers they face regularly. Please help by being aware of some of these barriers, and start conversations to spread that awareness. We can all do better.

It’s simple: start paying attention. Snow piled in front of curb cuts, garbage cans placed in front of automatic door buttons, bikes left on sidewalks. Take action by moving the obstacles or bring attention to obstacles to city officials or business owners. Recognizing the barriers is easy, and so is doing something about it.

You’ll find Kuno’s social media links on his website, here.

Ok, let’s go back to the original question. You’ll find a more straight forward answer to the original question if you click here!

BATTLE OF THE SERVICE DOGS!

Kuno and Tzila battle it out: Which one is the better retriever? The results are in!

A silhouette of a black lab in the middle of an echo beat.

Krys is wordy. Caroline lets her write about her own experiences without piloting the direction she wants to take, but for training posts the pair work as a team. Krys can get a long base down for posts, while Caroline helps pare it down to a reasonable length. You can usually tell when they have worked together on a post because the ones where Caroline helps tend to be on point and clear, where Krys’ tend to go on. She does her best but sometimes lets her passion get carried away. She’s unapologetic for that and thanks you for reading! Find out more about this dynamic duo in the “About Us” section!