“Oh my god! You poor thing!”
I reluctantly turned around from debating between grapefruits at my local grocery store to see a plump woman with vibrant orange hair standing right behind me, one glittery hand held to her red lips, the other outstretched in my general direction. My first thought was that she was about to have a stroke-or a prophetic vision.
“You are so brave!” She whispered, drawing closer, eyes wide and voice atremble. “I just can’t imagine the strength it takes-to do what you do—”
Other shoppers paused in their chores, looking around curiously, wondering if I were some unknown celebrity they had somehow overlooked. An elderly woman with a shopping cart piled high with blue bath towels polished her glasses furiously, unwilling to miss a single instant of action.
“To be struck by your disability so young, it must have taken years for you to recover.”
I stared at the orange-haired lady, my brain finally interpreting her words. “Um. What disability would that be?”
“You know!” She clucked her tongue sympathetically. “Your blindness.”
“My blindness.” I repeated slowly. “Right… I’m not blind.”
She stared at me, then reached closer and waved her hand in front of my face.
Throughout the fresh food isle customers leaned closer; their patience had won off. I might not be the daughter of an infamous celebrity, but they could sense the orange-haired woman struggling to recover.
“You’re not blind.” She repeated nervously, clearly envisioning lawsuits flying at her head. “Ah. My mistake.”
I gave my best bland smile and finished choosing my grapefruit. At my feet, Rally waited calmly as the woman scanned his vest for additional clues.
“Well then, if your dog isn’t one of those—those guide animals…what does he do?”
I carefully placed the fruit in my shopping cart. “Rally is my medical alert service dog.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Really? Medical alert?”
“Really.” I began to push my cart towards the vegetable corner, hoping that her curiosity was satisfied. Unfortunately, being pinned by the accusatory stares of her fellow shoppers, she now had to justify her earlier rudeness.
“Come on now,” She trotted at my shoulder, voice wheedling. “What disability could you possibly have that would warrant a service dog? I mean, look at you! You’re obviously healthy!”
“You thought I was blind a moment ago.” I pointed out, selecting a dozen carrots from their bin.
“Well you had a dog in one of those fancy capes!” She fired back indignantly. “What was I supposed to think?”
“Actually, service dogs are used to combat a wide variety of disabilities.” I forced my tone to remain polite, concealing my hurt at her sharp inquiries. Our armada of silent observers held their collective breath. “Seeing eye dogs are just one type of service animal.”
“But you’re not blind! You’re not crippled! You don’t need a wheelchair!” The woman’s voice rose in her distress and I noticed several of the customers nodding along. “You clearly don’t have a disability—so what’s wrong with you?”
“Shame on you!” The elderly lady with her cart of bath towels cried aloud, coming to my rescue before I could educate my unwelcome fan. “Can’t you see the poor girl doesn’t have a physical disability?”
I smiled in silent gratitude as my newest supporter placed a wrinkled hand on my own and added kindly, “Don’t you fret now dearie, we understand. It must be very hard on your parents though-and finding a job in this economy must be terrible.”
My fondness for the tiny woman faltered. “Excuse me?”
“Being mentally disabled at your age…it’s all right to be special, you know.” She beamed at me, completely confident in her professional diagnosis. Our group of onlookers sighed in relief and smiled at one another, the mystery solved. The orange haired woman leaned in, and said tearfully,
“I’m so sorry, young lady! I never met to hound you to revealing your secret!”
“Migraines.” I finally managed to say between grit teeth. “I have hemiplegic migraines. My medical alert service dog warns me when they are about to attack.”
Whatever sympathy or kindness I might have been fostering in my audience vanished in the blink of an eye, and suddenly I was once again being stared at in open hostility and blatant skepticism.
“Headaches? You have a service dog for headaches?” The old lady scowled, retreating back to her towel-ladened cart with a huff. “That’s not a disability!”
“It is when you get them four times a week and they include stroke symptoms.” I answer. Tears prick in the backs of my eyelids, but I gather my dignity and courage with an effort. “Without my service dog, I would-“
“You ought to be ashamed for faking a service dog to garner our pity!” The orange haired woman interrupted, swelling with righteous rage. “Feeding off of our good intentions-making us think you were special-what kind of person are you?”
“Shut up lady!” A man in a business suit edged forwards, turning to me. “We don’t care that you are faking a service dog! We just want to know where we can buy one of those new fangled vests!”
“Yeah,” A woman in pink curlers stepped closer. “I want to bring Lacy to the movie theater!”
“Cujo would be able to go to work with me!”
“Yeah, just tell us where you got the vest!”
I’ll admit, I fled. I left my grocery cart standing full and waiting beneath the cooling vents, grabbed Rally’s leash, went home and ate an entire two pints of cookie dough ice cream. Rally had a bully stick.
Now, reflecting back upon the incident as I write, I wonder if I should have reacted differently. Perhaps, by leaping atop of the potato crate, I might have been able to educate my fellow shoppers about service dog teams. Maybe I would have been able to get them to understand the years of training, thousands of dollars and a lifetime of hopes that often are invested in these amazing animals, but at the time, I was too hurt and too indignant to collect my thoughts in such an orderly fashion-and I’m not confident my audience would have listened anyways.
When you struggle with a disability-in my case an invisible one-it sometimes draws accusations from the public. This attitude is encouraged in particular because of the freedom to purchase service animal vests and gear online without the need to provide proof or documentation that your dog is indeed trained as a service animal. While the ability to buy gear online for Rally is invaluable, it also enables individuals to masquerade their pets through stores, movie theaters, restaurants and shopping malls. The cavalier, naïve desire to take Fido “everywhere” in an assistance animal’s gear is detrimental and belittling for every single service dog team, and places trained service animal’s authenticity in doubt in the eyes of the public.
When expressing my frustration to the service dog community, I learned that around fifteen years ago, the only service dogs in existence were seeing-eye dogs. The public’s contact and knowledge of assistance animals was sparse at best, and there was never any protest because the teams were few and far between. In today’s world, however, with assistance animals being trained to negate a widening range of disabilities, from mobility support to psychiatric aid to hearing loss, the public encounters a growing number of teams, and while I have experienced on countless occasions kind smiles and understanding nods, I am also met with sly winks and accusatory stares.
To try and avoid unpleasant situations such as the one I became entrenched in at the grocery store, it is my advice to follow some simple rules. First, although it is not mandatory by law, a service dog vest is always helpful. It easily identifies the animal as your service dog, and there are patches that you can choose to purchase which offer courtesy information, such as “medical alert service dog”, “do not touch”, or “access required”.
Additionally, I find a calm attitude is very useful when dealing with rude questions, such as “what’s wrong with you?” and “where can I buy a vest like that for my pet?” Becoming angry or tearful only increases the stranger’s suspicions that you are in fact, conducting an elaborate scheme to parade Fido right beneath security and manager’s noses and garner pity and attention from your adoring fans. You have absolutely no obligation to disclose the reason for acquiring your service dog, as it is your own personal medical history, but not yelling or getting visibly upset will serve to protect your privacy and dispel any curious pedestrians quicker.
Lastly, I find it invaluable to build a strong support system. You are not alone! Draw upon the strength of your family, friends and coworkers! Go online and write a blog or join a discussion. Keep informed about service dog laws and regulations. Educate the genuinely caring population and ignore the rest. And always be proud of your service dog! Remember, having a service dog isn’t a sign of someone unable to live with a weakness, but a badge of someone strong enough to survive!
And, if you just happen to see an orange-haired lady at the grocery store who stares at you and gasps in compassion, just turn around and walk the other way. You just can’t win some battles.