Thursday, February 16, 2012

Don't laugh at service dogs

Here goes SF Chron columnist C.W. Nevius again, applying the presumptions of a well-adjusted suburbanite to irregular people in an urban environment. This time he's irritated by service dogs.

The occasion being, Safeway doesn't like dogs in the supermarket. OK, that I can see. But Nevius, being Nevius, treats a genuine quandary about "Labradoodles in the produce aisle" as a jumping-off place for a gratuitous rant about people who say their dogs are "service animals" who, he suggests, are somehow lying. Worse, the Chronicle, being the Chronicle, illustrates with a photo of a scruffy dog owner wearing a soul patch and baggy clothes -- your basic current icon of Punks These Days Who Have No Respect.

Here's the thing: neither C.W. Nevius nor you, dear reader, nor anyone else, can know when a service dog is the only reason why any given person in the produce aisle is hanging on to the stable side of the proverbial edge.

There was this big brassy red-haired Vietnam veteran named Ray who worked for the Coalition on Homelessness in the '90s. He had been through some difficult times. He said he had spent a couple of years enduring worse than the shelter or RV kind of homelessness: "living in a bush" right out there on the ground.

When I first knew Ray he had a big black Lab named Bear who was his emotional support dog, who went everywhere with him and kept him going. This was before they had the brass medallions: he just had a reduced-fare disability transit ID with a picture showing his own smiling face next to the dog's. He would hold up the card and explain, "This is my service dog." The bus driver would say, "You're not blind." He would say, "I don't have to tell you what my disability is, this is my service dog." I'm sure conversations like that angered a lot of citizens who thought a big functional-looking person like him had no special need for a dog's help. They didn't know what was going on in Ray's head. I'm thankful that I didn't know either.

Ray was doing pretty well during those years. For a while he was even trying to organize a peer-counseling detox program for other veterans.

I did a little work on his veterans' idea as a class project during law school, figuring out how much hassle it would be for him to set up a nonprofit. The idea fizzled. That was partly because the McKinney statute's promise of surplus federal property for the homeless turned out, as usual, to be a mirage. The main parcel "available" in San Francisco then was a geologically unstable slope running down the bluff to the ocean from Fort Miley -- a place where you couldn't actually put a building. Then there was some other place that seemed more physically practical but it had all kinds of restrictions... Actually I don't remember the details except that they were depressing. That was almost twenty years ago.

But anyhow, the fizzle wasn't Ray's fault. Or, OK, maybe he was a little impractical, but he was being a good citizen, trying to make things better for people who had been through kinds of hell like his own.

Then I was out of town for a couple of years. When I got back Ray wasn't around any more. Or I think I did see him once but he was a lot smaller than I remembered. Someone told me what happened: Bear was dead. Ray fell apart, collapsed into addiction, and died too.

That's a dog story I feel OK about telling. There are some other stories I was close to as a lawyer that I can't tell here, that strengthen my respect for dogs as therapeutic helpers. Stories that make me sad and a little upset to see this columnist, whose whole shtick is championing the normals against the oddballs, trying to make life more difficult for oddballs who get through life with help from their dogs.

Another thing: Nevius thinks grocery stores ought to be able to demand official brass "service animal" medallions. He's unhappy with learning that "the Department of Justice is adamantly opposed, feeling it stigmatizes the disabled."

OK, but there's a thing about service dog medallions: people steal them because they are valuable for the very reasons Nevius describes. Someone will walk up to an owner with dog, make a show of lovingly petting the dog, and remove the brass tag in the process. They're hard to replace, in fact last I heard, Animal Control would only replace them once in a given dog's life. Dog owners therefore sometimes don't have the tags to which they're entitled. After getting burned or warned, they sometimes keep the tags on their keychains, not on the dogs' necks.

So, OK, at least, props to Nevius for calling and quoting Susan Mizner of the Mayor's Office on Disability, who is one of the more sensible people anywhere on disability accommodation rights. (Disclosure: I used to work with her ages ago. But I'd say that regardless.) She brings the grocery store issue back to the actual accommodation in question, not the penumbra of social prejudices surrounding it. He notes she's "trying to focus on behavior. If dogs are barking, aggressive or not in control, the dog must leave, service animal or not."

Well, yes. That's the sensible attitude to take. No need to throw a hissy fit about it, and no need to question the honesty of people who may be getting through their days with difficulty, whose animals may be holding them together.

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