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Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

The Truth About Invisible Disabilities and Service Animals

by Heather Dahlin

The ability and tendency to categorize is deeply ingrained in human nature. In particular, social categorization is pervasive throughout Western Society. One only needs to watch a movie about high school to see the way categorization can shape a specific population. Mean Girls, one of the most popular movies in this genre, spends an hour and a half depicting the effects of categorization or cliques on individuals. Once labeled into a particular group or clique, this categorization is very difficult to change even in relatively fluid groups that do not rely on definite characteristics for their categorization such as the amount of time one studies or the hobbies one chooses to participate in. This phenomenon is inherently deleterious to the disabled, especially those who use service animals, who do not have the option to change the characteristics that define them to a particular category or group.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (The ADA) defines a disabled person as “as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” The writers of this act specifically did not name all impairments that are covered. The definition is meant to be broad in its scope to allow the greatest protection for all disabled individuals under the law. It does not differentiate between impairments. Why then do both disabled and non-disabled feel the need to categorize their disabilities and service animals?

As a member of multiple service dog forums, it is difficult to find an introduction that does not include some sort of a label. Likewise, a Google search for the term “mobility service dog” generates 11,100,000 results, and psychiatric service dog generates 1,350,000 results. These numbers are staggering considering the broad scope of the laws protecting individuals with disabilities in the United States. The ADA does not differentiate between types of service dogs, as would be expected from a law that does not differentiate between types of disabilities. Some would argue categorization is beneficial, especially for those who are seeking a service animal. Service dog organizations can effectively market dogs’ trained tasks that would benefit people with similar impairments. Assistance animals called mobility service dogs are most often trained a specific group of tasks including dropped item retrieval, pressing handicapped automated door buttons, opening and closing drawers and cabinets, and emptying the washing machine to name a few.

This categorization, however, is deleterious in many aspects. The social identity theory proposed by Tajfel and Turner identifies problems that can come from categorization. In the theory, from social categorization comes social identification, which begets social comparison. To elaborate, categorization leads to individuals adopting the identity of a group they have perceived themselves as belonging to, which in turn leads to comparing the “in-group”, or us, to the “out-group”, or them. The creation of the “in-group” and “out-group” inherently leads to discrimination. Tajfel (1970) described how, even with arbitrary categorization, people will still act in classical ways towards “in-group” and “out-group” individuals. Individuals will almost always favor “us” to the detriment of the “them”. This occurs because humans derive self-esteem from the sense of belonging to the “in-group”. The opposite phenomenon to “in-group” bias is “out-group” bias in which members of the “out-group” are viewed negatively and given worse treatment when compared to members of the “in-group”. This is the basis of discrimination.

The realities of the “us” and “them” effects can have major impacts on service dog handlers especially when faced with the current views on “fake” service dogs. Members of the general public are most familiar with service animals trained for mobility and sight impaired persons. These disabilities are often readily apparent and the person can be easily categorized. From large amounts of anecdotal evidence from service dog handlers and comments from the general public on articles about access challenges for service dog handlers, these types of disabilities are viewed more favorably for access with a service animal. It is easy to see these individuals’ need for a service animal, and accommodate their request to allow their animal into the business. As the disabled are members of the general “out-group”, the “in-group” of non-disabled has to search harder to understand the “out-group” and if the impairment is visible, the non-disabled have an easier time understanding the disability and the subsequent need for a service animal.

This inherently creates a subset “us” that includes those with visible impairments and a subset “them” of those with invisible disabilities. Thus, this new “in-group” is prone to lack of understanding and discrimination towards the new “out-group”. This is compounded with inherent differences in training dogs for different impairments to create a hostile environment towards individuals with invisible disabilities, and this hostility can even extend to those in the subset “in-group”. Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) is one of the largest training organizations for service dogs in the United States and specializes in training dogs for mobility-impaired persons. They have started a campaign called Stop Service Dog Fraud, which has received support from more than 17,500 individuals. It is easy for an organization such as CCI to start a campaign like this to the detriment of those with invisible disabilities. They are members of the subset “in-group” with visible disabilities.

If an individual walks into a store with a service animal and their disability is not readily apparent, how can one distinguish this person from a non-disabled individual? The answer is that it is incredibly difficult. The ADA allows business to enquire “(1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”. If the handler says yes to the first question and provides a task or work the dog performs, the business is not allowed any further inquiry, but is allowed to exclude out of control dogs and/or dogs that are not housebroken. In light of the inherent discriminatory tendencies of the “in-group”, these questions seem satisfactory for admittance as they do not invade the handler’s privacy, but also assures the business that the dog entering the establishment falls under the definition of a service animal. Along with the clause that excludes all out of control and non-housebroken animals, both the business and disabled handler have sufficient protection under the law. However, due to the lack of understanding for invisible disabilities and the perceived threat of fake service animals, organizations like CCI continue to pursue discriminatory legislation towards members of the “out-group”. Their Stop Service Dog Fraud campaign aims to eliminate the sales of service dog equipment online that is necessary for individuals who train their own service animals. This particularly impacts those with invisible disabilities as legitimate organizations that train animals for these disabilities are few and far between as compared to organizations that train dogs for mobility and sight impairments. Additionally, those with mobility and sight impairment may choose to train their own service animals, primarily due to cost and the long waiting lists that most organizations have for a trained service animal.

The lack of understanding for those with invisible disabilities is demonstrated even in daily interactions with the general public by service dog handlers. Amy, a handler with a service animal that is trained to interrupt obsessive-compulsive behaviors and assist with drops in blood pressure said she had an encounter with a man that lasted over ten minutes. They were discussing the tasks her dog is trained to do and after the entire conversation he asked, “so wait you’re not blind?” and then proceeded to ask what was wrong with her. These latter questions would generally be considered rude to ask to any other disabled person. It is commonly socially unacceptable to ask an individual in a wheelchair, “what’s wrong with you?” but handlers with invisible disabilities are frequented with rude and intrusive questions. Another individual with a dog trained to assist her with fibromyalgia and anxiety disorder said even when her dog was aged with a grey muzzle, she would often be asked who she was training her “puppy” for and what she would do when she grew up. When she responded that the animal was already trained to assist her with her disability, she was met with incredulous responses.

One of the most impacted subsets of the population, who form their own “out-group” are those with psychiatric and mental impairments. Independent of service dog usage, mental illness has a stigma of its own and the “in-group” heavily discriminates against individuals with mental illness. USA Today writes that stigma against mental illness is so pervasive in society that it is even written into federal laws, especially in regards to availability of treatment. According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, one-third of Americans still view mental illness as a sign of bad character. In the same study, two-thirds of Americans view depression as part of the normal up and downs of life. In terms of social interactions, less than half of Americans say they will willingly work closely with someone with depression, only about a third will socialize will socialize with someone with depression, and only a fifth will willingly have a person with depression as a friend. Clearly, there is an inherent bias against those with mental illness and this has a drastic effect on service dog handlers who utilize their dogs to assist them with psychiatric disabilities. If the majority of people are unwilling to associate with or even talk with someone with a mental illness at all, it is likely they will have an even more drastic negative feeling towards those with disabling levels of psychiatric impairment. This is reflected in the general public’s response towards individuals who were denied access with their service animal and disclosed that their animal provides assistance with psychiatric impairments. Below are just two comments made in response to a woman who was denied access to a business because she utilized a service animal to assist her with her psychiatric disability:

“I have no problem with service dogs coming with a customer when they are blind or disabled to the point it is necessary, but, for a Bi Polar problem? It's getting out of hand, leave the dog outside and get your food or coffee.”

“I smell a fish. Something just does not add up here. She suffers a brain injury that prevents her from remembering where she lives? 'This woman needs more than a dog, she needs to be institutionalized to prevent harm to herself’.”

With such attitudes towards invisible disabilities and mental illness in particular, the labeling and categorization of different types of service animals should be minimized. When all disabled individuals have an impairment that substantially limits one or more major activity in their life, such categorization is unnecessary and harmful. Rather than further dividing disabled individuals and their assistance animals into “in-groups” and “out-groups”, both disabled and non-disabled persons should try to understand the drastic impact any type of disabling impairment has on an individual’s life. The perceived threat of fake service dogs is caused by this skewed us vs. them dynamic and the lack of education to both the general public and business on the disabled and rights of both handlers and establishments. Through education on the Americans with Disabilities Act and invisible disabilities, both the service dogs handlers and business can assert their rights without a drastic change in the laws others are calling for. Rather than judgment, understanding is needed. As Earl Nightingale once said, “When you judge others, you do not define them, you define yourself.”

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