In Their Own Words: Perspectives In View –

“You are not allowed to come into this store.” Hearing these words can cause anxiety especially when you have done nothing wrong. Unfortunately, I have been denied access to different types of businesses because of my medical alert service dog.  Not only is this illegal according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but it is also disability discrimination.

The definition of discrimination is “treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit.”

Ripley is a multi-purpose medical alert service dog. Although it is medically unsafe for me to be in public without her, we frequently hear insensitive comments about my not looking like I have a disability, that I am just training her for someone else, or assumptions that she is an emotional support animal. When someone makes an inaccurate comment about her role, it is harmful because it is discounting how my disability affects me greatly every day. Individuals with disabilities have so many battles they are fighting daily. Society should not be adding to the difficulty of living with a disability.

It can be easy to forget that disability discrimination happens almost daily. Whether it is intentional or subliminal, people with disabilities are often subjected to discrimination on a regular basis. Sometimes, society has a bias toward how an individual with a disability should look, think, move, or act. However, it is important to understand that other than the person who is living with the disability, others cannot determine or assume how a disability affects an individual. It is also important to remember that every individual is a person and desires to be treated with dignity.

Some discrimination that I experience may stem from people’s misunderstanding of the difference between service animals and emotional support animals. Service dogs are different than emotional support animals because they are specifically task trained to help a person with a disability in public. Emotional support animals have the right to live in a housing environment without being charged additional pet fees but do not have public access rights like service dogs. According to the ADA, service dogs must be allowed in public, and businesses are not allowed to deny service or access because of a service dog.

While businesses must provide access for service dog teams, it is also important as a community that we are intentional about learning about disability discrimination and how to prevent it from happening. If you see a service dog team in public, don’t distract the dog whether that is talking to the dog or petting without permission. This is beyond dangerous for the handler because the service dog needs to be focused on the owner. Also, it is invading someone’s personal space. This also includes not bringing pets into non-pet-friendly places or allowing a pet to approach a service dog team.

As someone once said, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” Everyone deserves the right to kindness and access. There never should be a time when someone is treated differently because of a disability, ethnicity, race, or anything else that makes an individual unique.

If you feel uncomfortable or uninformed in a situation, this is a great time to learn more about disability rights and laws. The ADA has several great resources to help educate and inform others about disability rights and advocacy. Disability Rights TN, is another great resource to learn more about disability discrimination, or if you experience discrimination, they can help provide guidance.

So, I encourage you with three action points:

  1. Don’t make judgement statements about an individual who might look different than you. Each person is fighting a hidden battle and deserves to be treated with kindness. Kindness can greatly impact mental health and make a huge difference.
  2. Treat the individual like a person. This looks like treating someone the way you would like to be treated. Instead of staring or making comments out loud, you could ask the individual if there is anyway you could help support them. Making comments about someone can be hurtful and harmful especially when you don’t know their story. Tennessee Disability Coalition developed a helpful resource with tips for disability etiquette.
  3. Help promote education and inclusion regarding individuals with disabilities. Often, discrimination happens because there is a lack of awareness. Helping others understand disability rights and advocacy is a great step towards making your community inclusive. Disability Rights Tennessee has several resources to help promote disability awareness.

We all have a role to play in ensuring that disability discrimination doesn’t happen. Every individual deserves to be treated with respect, and remember, kindness goes a long way.