Puppy (and Kitty, and Birdie, and Other) Love: People with Disabilities and Their Animal Companions

Hello again, readers,

As it is still February, I am continuing this month’s series about love in the lives of persons with disabilities. As you might recall, last week’s post, about whether love was automatically an obligation when a PWD was involved, was sort of “heavy.” Thus today, I thought I would treat my readers to something more light-hearted, although it is still a serious issue at its core. Today, I want to talk about PWDs and the companion animals who often make their lives brighter and better.

Many studies have proven that people, whether or not they have disabilities, are generally healthier and live longer when they have pets. Now, for a long time, I was not a pet owner. I was and still am fearful of most dogs, despite the fact that my younger brother has two of them, thanks to a childhood incident. I was also hesitant around many other animals because in my experience, they made quick movements and seemed unpredictable.

However, I did, in the past few years, find myself increasingly drawn to cats. For those of you out there who are not cat people, bear with me. They are generally quieter and more independent than dogs. They’re not quite as prone to jumping and licking, and in my opinion, at least, their vocalizations are not as intimidating as dogs’. So I began dropping hints about adopting one, until a beautiful female calico showed up on our porch one day and beat my family and me to the punch. She’s not a fully indoor cat and thus is only with me for parts of the day, but she does make me feel needed, affectionate, and loved. Her name is Clarice.

Clarice is not what is legally referred to as a “service animal.” She doesn’t perform tasks for me that would make living with CP easier. (If she did, I’d be shocked–one downside to cats is that, all that independence means they aren’t as easy to “train.”) But having her with me has reminded me how beneficial animals can be to people with disabilities, and so I write this post as a proponent of that. I also write it in order to familiarize readers with the phenomenon of service/companion animals (which I am also just now learning about), the pros and cons of “animal helpers,” as I have heard them called, and so forth.

So, first off, what is a service animal, and what is the difference between one of those and a “companion” or a “therapy animal?” As defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) a service animal is not a pet (that’s why I’ve been referring to animals as companions here). These are working dogs (usually it’s dogs, but I have seen or heard of other PWDs who work with animals like cats, pygmy horses, or even some breeds of monkey, such as capuchin). According to the ADA, they can be trained as seeing-eye animals, as well as hearing animals, or an animal who lets his or her owner know when sounds occur. If you’re familiar with the television series Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye, her dog Levi is a hearing dog.

These animals may also help PWDs with daily tasks such as opening doors, getting items from counters, or responding to seizures, among many other things. Most of them wear identification such as a special collar, and businesses are prohibited from ever discriminating against customers because they bring service animals to the premises. Furthermore, the ADA stipulates that a PWD and service animal must be allowed to go anywhere in an establishment that a person without a disability can go–they are not to be segregated.

Therapy animals are somewhat different, though their name often has the same connotation as “service animal.” These are usually the actual pets, like dogs, cats, and rabbits or birds, that you see, who have been trained to work in hospitals, nursing homes, or other such places. These are the animals who are often connected to a specific pet therapy program in a community, and who have owners who do refer to them as pets. They can provide comfort, companionship, and often motivation–for example, by coming alongside a child who has work to do in physical therapy and joining him or her in the activity. The laws are not as stringent when it comes to therapy animals, but the ADA still prohibits discrimination against a PWD based upon the presence of a therapy animal. As with service animals, the Fair Housing Act also protects PWDs and their therapy animals, but unlike with service animals, certification that the animal is “needed to assure the person’s well-being” may be required.

There is also a type of animal that helps PWDs known as an Emotional Support Animal, or ESA. These animals are not as heavily trained as service animals because they may not perform physical tasks for their handlers. But, their handlers may have experienced severe psychological trauma, such as abuse, neglect, PTSD, or other issues. That’s where this type of animal comes in, providing comfort, reassurance, and psychological strength to the handler. Often, having something to provide care for and to focus on can help individuals with psychological disabilities cope more effectively and/or rebuild their lives. Again, laws pertaining to the fair treatment of persons with disabilities who own ESAs aren’t as stringent as those pertaining to service animals, but the ADA does cover them.

Of course, as beneficial and uplifting as the relationship of a PWD to an animal can be, there are some pitfalls worth considering before and even during the time that you might have one in your home. These include:

Fear that Animals are Being Enslaved. Personally, I don’t agree that training an animal to serve an individual is “enslaving” it. As long as the animal is treated well and given tasks realistic to its breed, personality, and other factors, I don’t see a lot of logic in this argument. However, some people and groups, such as PETA, see service training as unfair to the animal. Other people who don’t have ties to such groups may also argue that by pairing a PWD with a service animal, you are giving him or her an “easy out” (McKenna doesn’t need a dog–she needs to learn to open doors on her own…even if her hands will not easily do so). I’m not even going to respond to that; it’s the same argument people are making when they say, “Clint needs a goal of washing dishes 20 minutes after eating in his Individualized Habitation Plan.” As we’ve discussed, that argument is full of holes.

Possibility of Aggression/Over-Bonding. This was a concern raised in an article I read while studying special education and disability needs in graduate school. Ideally, an animal would be trained not to respond aggressively unless appropriate (example: a person trying to attack his or her handler). But this can be a concern with certain breeds of animals, even those who seem well-trained, so do your homework. And, as I have touched on many times, no relationship is a substitute for human interaction. That’s why humans live together on this planet. So, parents and other loved ones: if your loved one with a disability has, and is close to, a service animal or other animal companion, please don’t assume they’re getting all the “relationship” they need. They still need you. I love Clarice, but let’s face it, I don’t speak cat.

Use of the PWD and His or Her Animal for Inspiration Discrimination/Personal Gain. First, let me go on record as saying: I have absolutely no problems with a PWD and an animal developing a close relationship. I have no problem with the acknowledgment that the person and his or her animal are friends or in tune with each other–that’s what a good relationship is. I also have zip problems with an animal helping a person to overcome great obstacles, or with others acknowledging that. For example, if a veteran who has PTSD hasn’t spoken in six months, and then begins to interact with people again because his or her dog or cat helped out? Great! If, as I once saw on Dogs 101, an Afghan hound helps a seriously ill young girl get well, simply by lying at her side and performing comforting gestures? Fine again.

But what I do have a problem with, is people who take these stories and take the, well, human interest out of it. That is, taking away the resilience, the indomitable nature, the chutzpah, of the human and animal spirit, and reducing that relationship to a cutesy, sugar-sweet “boy/girl and their dog” story. One recent offender, you may have seen in the local news. A seven-year-old boy named Owen and his Anatolian shepherd Haatchi are now the stars of a short documentary titled, I am not kidding you, A Boy and His Dog. The focus of the documentary is that Owen, who has a rare genetic disorder that keeps his muscles “in a state of painful tension,” was scared of strangers and afraid to do almost anything until Haatchi came along. Haatchi, who also has physical disabilities, is referred to as “crippled.” I’m sorry–I don’t care if he’s a dog. That term is offensive.

Now, again, am I bashing Owen and Haatchi’s relationship? No stinking way. These two are a great pair. But the media pared that story down so that you didn’t see Owen as a strong, capable person, with or without Haatchi. You didn’t see Owen as much of a person, and you didn’t see Haatchi as much of a dog. The story was pared down to the “awww” factor. So, be aware that service animals can be used as a way to subtly, “kindly” discriminate–and then don’t be the one perpetrating the misdeed.

Despite concerns like these, however, pets can and do provide companionship, responsibility, fun, and love to PWDs just like they do for those without disabilities. A disability is no excuse to deprive an individual of this type of experience (see the December 2012 archives, the post entitled “Give Me a Break,” for more on this). So, as a new cat-lover and a proponent of the relationships between animals and PWDs, I’ll close with this question:

Have you hugged your furry friend today? (P.S.–Feathered and finned friends can be harder to hug, but you can find your own methods of appreciation. Perhaps singing along with their chirping, or a new little castle for the tank)?


All in the Family: If You Have a Disability, is Family Love–or Love of Any Kind–an Obligation?

Hello, readers,

I hope everyone had a marvelous Valentine’s Day weekend. If that included, as it did for me, waiting 90 minutes or more to get into a decent restaurant, you have my sympathy. In all seriousness, though, there is indeed something unique and fun about Valentine’s Day, whether you have a “Valentine” or not. For instance, I’m still single, but my family has never failed to make me feel loved on V-Day. I usually get presented with chocolates, an angel for my collection, a gift card, or some other small present. In recent years, my parents have also gotten me flowers, such as carnations, daisies, or pink roses. As one of my friends once told me, having a family who loves you truly is a blessing–disability or not.

Of course, as you all know by now, disability can come with a set of insecurities. Among these is an insecurity I face down every V-Day: what if my family are the only ones who ever truly cherish me? Now, one, I know that’s already not true because I have friends who cherish me, even if I don’t see them every day. Two, some people would do anything to have what I do, and it’s more than others have. I get that. So I decided it was time to throw that insecurity out the window–and keep throwing it out every time it reared its ugly, non-loving head. Yet, it did make me think of an idea for this blog.

What idea is that? Let me explain. I believe there is an insidious lie circulating through society that if you have a disability, your family will in fact be the only ones who love or even tolerate you. Furthermore, the lie goes on to say that they are obligated to love you. Some disability humorists–that is, people who themselves have disabilities and are trying unsuccessfully to be funny–even make a joke out of this. I recently saw a version of this on a website I will not name: “Don’t expect to find love or be able to date. You’re breathing–that’s enough. Your family already loves you.” (My paraphrase).

Disgusting, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. Not only is it disgusting for PWDs to posit this about themselves, as we have discussed (check the December 2011 archives for my post on “disability humor”), it’s disgusting to place PWDs and their families in this box, this position. As if, families never wanted children with disabilities, no matter what they say otherwise, and when those children grow up, they can only hope to be burdens.

People who perpetuate this horrible idea take it even further, by assuming that if, by some miracle, a PWD does find love outside the family–of any kind (more on that in a second)–it, too, will be a love of obligation. Let’s take a look at what I mean, using the Greek expressions of love. (Come on, I’m a nerd. You didn’t think I could write a love-centered post without exploring the word’s origins, did you)? 😉

Eros. In Greek, this is romantic/sexual love, the kind you have with a partner to whom you have fully devoted yourself, at least in part because they are physically attractive to you, but also because they are (hopefully) intellectually and spiritually attractive. PWDs have the right to seek this love, and many find it. Joni Eareckson Tada, David Ring, Rob Oliver, Tiffiny Carlson, and countless others have (for more on Carlson and Oliver, check their stories on dating with disabilities, which appeared in Happen magazine and are now online). That love, as we have discussed, can be as real as any other romantic/sexual relationship. But some people, who believe loving PWDs is an obligation, twist it around, claiming that a “lover” of a PWD will only ever be a “caregiver.” Can I go on record as saying that’s a load of rotten feta? In fact, as Carlson and Oliver put it, it is inadvisable for a PWD to look for someone to date just so that person can care for him or her. It’s also unfair for a temporarily able-bodied person to seek a PWD so he or she can play caregiver. Eros may mean “romantic/sexual love,” but it should also mean “equal love.”

Philia/Philio (seen it spelled both ways). In Greek, this is “family love” or “friendship love.” It is, I can tell you from experience, some of the strongest love in existence. And one need not be part of your blood family to get philia from you. For example, I have a great deal of filial (philia) love for the women with whom I attend Bible study. They are my sisters. The older women, I regularly and proudly call my “aunties.” I have the same family love for men such as my pastor, the male professors who mentored me (and the females, too), and other men for whom I have zip romantic feelings. Of course, philia love can be twisted, too. People might say, “Of course they have to love you. You wouldn’t know love otherwise, and when they’re gone, you never will.” Some families, for whatever reason, even act as if loving the PWD in their lives is an obligation, whether that stems from abuse, neglect, a feeling of helplessness, or something else.

Rotten feta alert! It is not a burden or obligation for family to love a PWD–and that person can, yes, have true friends who also choose to love him or her. In fact, this love is often quite rewarding for both sides.

Agape (love for everyone, the love of Christ/God). Unfortunately, I think this third love type is the one most vulnerable to the obligation label. As in, “Of course God has to love that poor little disabled person,” or, “Tell yourself God loves you if it makes you feel better.” Or even, “God loves you, and that’s enough.” (On a spiritual, metaphysical, transcendent level, maybe–but God also said it was not good for man or woman to be alone, so there goes your excuse for denying PWDs human relationships). I’m not going to say much here because I have plans for other posts about the community of PWDs’ relationship to God. But I will say this: God isn’t obligated to love anyone or anything. If He were, we’d have all been obliterated centuries ago. PWDs are included in “anyone,” just as they should always be. Chew on that.

In short, true love is not an obligation. Nor is it “natural” for anyone, PWD or not, to give it (despite the stereotype that PWDs are perpetual bastions of love and kindness). Love must be learned, and freely given, on both sides. So please indulge. Give and receive some today, no obligation required.

Ain’t it Awful?: What Does the “Face” of Disability Currently Tell the World?

Happy February, readers!

With Valentine’s Day approaching, I thought it would be appropriate to dedicate this month’s posts to issues of love within the community of persons with disabilities. Of course, we have covered some significant topics in this vein in the past two or so years, such as the facts that:

  • PWDs want, and deserve, romantic relationships
  • PWDs can understand the needs and wants of a partner, despite sentiment to the contrary that they are “perpetually needy,” so to speak
  • PWDs are in fact sexual beings and can enjoy sexual activity
  • PWDs can be parents, and have the right to do so, without interference from the state or local government except in cases of intentional neglect or abuse, just like everyone else (who would only be reported in cases of intentional neglect or abuse–we hope)

But there is more to love than the romantic gestures, the wedding ceremonies, and the activities between the sheets. This is because “love” is only four letters long, but is a big word, in that it encompasses a lot of connotations and emotions. So for today, let’s start with one little piece of that. Let’s examine the question: how is society doing when it comes to making persons with disabilities look lovable?

By “lovable,” I don’t mean heartstring-tugging, warm-and-fuzzy, “Aw look, the boy in the wheelchair and his dog love each other.” No–too often, that turns into inspiration discrimination because “everybody loves a ‘brave cripple.'” I’m talking here about love in the physical, romantic sense. That is, does the media, and does real life, portray disability in a way that says, “This person can be loved and love you back?”

The answer to this question is tricky, because we have come a long way in this and so many other areas involving PWDs and their civil rights. For example, in the 1950s and earlier, I’m guessing (because I wasn’t born then) that people usually believed, disability = always single, often because “disability” also equaled institutionalization. Now, we have proof that this is not true. People with disabilities marry, even if their disabilities are severe. Christian speaker and advocate Joni Eareckson Tada is married, and she has quadriplegia. An HBO documentary, Monica and David, features the courtship and marriage of two individuals with Down Syndrome. We even have online dating services specifically for the community of persons with disabilities, such as dating4disabled.com. But as with most civil rights movements, change takes time, and sometimes it’s a one step forward, two steps back proposition. I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer–simply to present both sides of the issue.

So on the positive side, we have real people with disabilities who have achieved romantic success, in their own ways. That’s great. And it’s also great if you happen to be a PWD and prefer to stay single. Believe me, I get that. I want to be married, but I also understand the advantages of single-dom, not the least of which: I control the remote, pick the ice cream, and don’t have to worry that my honey might be allergic to my cat. (Yes, I finally adopted one–or, er, she adopted me). 🙂

Yet, on the negative side, we have too many people who still doubt that relationships could be feasible for PWDs. Some of these are our old friends “the experts”–doctors, therapists, you name it–who are trained to spew gloom and doom prophecies to the families of every baby born with a disability, more’s the pity for them. Some are the ignorant, mean-spirited clods who look at PWDs and see non-people. And some are in the media, presenting a “face” of disability that does not immediately bring the word “lovable” to mind.

Let’s keep one thing straight: I am not saying that any person with a disability, or any type of disability, is ugly or unlovable. It’s not–they’re not. What I am saying is that the media tends to root out the most severe examples of disabilities, and that’s what they show on TV or in the movies or in magazines, because then, the disability is “in your face.” You can’t ignore it.

The media also does this, I believe, to perpetuate what Kathie Snow has referred to as an “ain’t it awful” attitude. You know the one: the one that focuses on what a PWD can’t do, can’t say, won’t ever do or say. The one that makes these folks look like charity cases, to be pitied and clucked over like we’re all hens hyped up on Coca-Cola. It’s what you often see when you tune in to a telethon whose purpose is to “help the handicapped.” It’s what you see with the charity Jerry Lewis began–even though the PWDs who have utilized this charity may be adults, every person who has utilized it is referred to as part of Jerry’s Kids. As in, you could be 45, but according to these people, you’re still a kid. And I’m 100% sure Jerry’s Kids isn’t the only offender. It’s what you see when you turn on your television or pop in the latest inspirational, feel-good flick featuring a person with a disability, and see temporarily able-bodied people crying, lamenting, or asking for money. “Ain’t it awful?”

And yes, it is awful. As I have said on this blog, it breaks my heart that grown people with disabilities can’t walk, can’t talk, might need colostomy bags, end up in group homes because their elderly family members really can’t care for them, and so forth. It angers me. It shakes my faith if I let it–and I’ve let it. Guilty. But when you parade people with disabilities in front of the world with this attitude, that’s what’s truly awful.

Think about it. Generally, when you see people with disabilities in the media, what do you see? Severe intellectual disabilities, especially those with “classical features,” such as Down’s Syndrome. For example, a meme recently circulated on Facebook showing a Marine escorting a beautiful young lady with Down Syndrome to the annual Cinderella Ball for people with disabilities, cancer, and other illnesses or conditions and their families. That’s wonderful, and that Marine’s got class. But the camera showed the young lady with her eyes down, frowning, no makeup, and her hair looking–kind of lackluster. Now, that could’ve been a fluke. Maybe she was looking away. Maybe she didn’t want to wear makeup or an elaborate hairstyle. What I’m saying is, Down Syndrome was the first thing you noticed, and I don’t think it should’ve been.

You may also see things like: people in wheelchairs, unable to hold their heads up, or holding their heads to the side. Gaping mouths are common in the media too, as are jerking limbs, for whatever reason (palsy, epilepsy, whatever). And too often, the PWDs we see in the media–less so in movies and TV, but certainly in documentaries or “based on true story” productions–aren’t dressed with care or given makeup or made to feel beautiful. For example, in Riding the Bus with My Sister, Beth, the character who has an intellectual disability, is seen without makeup at all times, usually in shorts and T-shirts that feature characters like Winnie-the-Pooh. Now of course, maybe she preferred that–her characterization doesn’t tell us. But in that portrayal, I see a message that says, “Beth is a perpetual child. She doesn’t need to be beautiful because she cannot be an object of love outside her own family.”

The argument here is that people need to look beyond the “package,” and I wholeheartedly agree. Yet, society so far is doing a horrible job of truly taking temporarily able-bodied people beyond the package. PWDs even have a hard time getting beyond it. Sometimes, I find myself looking in the mirror and saying, “Pretty and deserving of romance? Me?” Is that all the media’s fault? No. But I wish they’d change the face of disability so it looks like it truly is. Some of those faces are black, or white, or Asian. Some have visible features of disability–and some don’t. Some have acne or wrinkles, some are fat and some are thin. Some have big noses or hazel eyes, or curly hair, or gaps in the teeth from where their older brother accidentally clocked them with a football. But all those faces are real, and deserve to be loved–in every way, including romantically.