It’s challenging to communicate the seriousness of the unfair treatment service dog handlers encounter on a regular basis. I’m not a handler, but all I have to do is spend half an hour with one of my handler friends to get a sense of how frustrating it really is to exist in the world when you have a service dog. Watching service dog users interact with the disrespectful public sets my teeth on edge, and I have no idea how they put up with it as gracefully as they do.
It’s tempting, then, for handlers and for me, to use racial discrimination as a direct comparison. I’ve made such comparisons on this very blog, without examining the deeper implications of that choice. Today, a guest poster, who has chosen to remain nameless, challenges me, as well as her fellow service dog handlers, to take a closer look at these comparisons. Compelling as they are, she invites us to consider a more inclusive path forward. I, for one, will be doing a lot of rethinking.
From time to time, controversy rears its ugly head in my network of service dog handlers. A viral news story about a person of colour being mistreated sweeps social media, and inevitably, service dog handlers draw direct comparisons to their own lives. They equate discrimination they have faced due to the presence of their dogs to that faced by people of colour and other marginalized groups. It’s usually sparked by genuine frustration as handlers try to help the public understand why access refusals are problematic, but the resulting conversations usually lack nuance and meaningful intersectionality. Traditionally, I have remained silent. I have sat on the sidelines, scrolling through the comments, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. I’ve been unwilling to speak out, not wanting to risk backlash from those propagating this comparison. After the most recent surge of posts like this, I find I no longer want to be silent.
Before I go any further, I will admit I face discrimination because of my gender, my disability, and, yes, because of my service dog. However, I am white, and I have the privilege of never experiencing discrimination or oppression due to my race. Thus, I will be describing my experiences as a white handler, and I am calling out my peers, because without exception, the handlers I’ve seen conflating their experiences with those of people of colour are white.
As I said above, I am not a stranger to discrimination due to my dog. I have been refused access to stores and restaurants, been turned away from taxis, and even been denied employment opportunities. Is this humiliating? Yes. Does this harm me? Yes. Is this highly illegal, and should violators of the laws be punished? Yes. Does this mean my accessibility issues are on the same level as discrimination that’s racially-motivated?
On the surface, you can definitely identify similarities. It’s easy to compare service dog discrimination with racial prejudice, especially if you want a familiar framework to help nondisabled people understand it. Denial of access to services and employment is par for the course for people of colour, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, etc. When you dig further down, however, you quickly encounter the pivotal difference which, at least in my mind, reveals a false equivalency. That essential difference is freedom of choice.
Using a service dog is a conscious choice one makes with the full awareness that discrimination probably will occur at some point. The service dog programs I’ve attended had info sessions about what to do if you are denied access to a public place or public transit. I was warned that I would be placed in situations where I would have to argue for my rights. I still went ahead with the decision to get multiple service dogs over the years, because I weighed the pros and cons, and still found that a dog was the right choice for me, even if I would occasionally argue with members of the public who are unaware of relevant laws. That is an informed decision I made, and continue to make, regardless of how I’m treated. In the case of PoC, the barriers they deal with are not based on choice, but on fundamental characteristics they did not ask for and cannot change. Make no mistake: I’m not in any way minimizing the importance of service dogs. Service dogs improve the lives of many, and are typically considered medical equipment. I would never choose to be without mine for any length of time, and no one should ask it of me. But that’s a far cry from having a skin colour that automatically sets me up for mistreatment.
Now, I’m not at all saying discrimination against service dog handlers should be ignored just because it is based on a choice we made, but there exists a difference between the two situations that cannot be overlooked. Discrimination based on race and discrimination based on the presence of a service dog are both reprehensible, but they should not be conflated. When a business owner denies me access because of my guide dog, it often involves fear of the dog, concern that my dog may make a mess and/or violate health codes, concern for allergies, and/or a lack of awareness of the laws that grant my service dog access to any public place. When PoC are denied access, it is due to a fundamental mistrust, disgust, hatred, and/or fear of them as people. I may be asked to leave because a business owner is afraid that my dog will shed on their merchandise, while a PoC may be followed around the store by staff because they are afraid they will steal something. Put another way, I am mistreated because I am accompanied by an animal; PoC are mistreated because some people view them as animals.
Another telling difference is the response by authorities to the discriminatory act. If a business owner threatens to call the police because of my dog, I generally invite them to go ahead. Most likely, the police will be on my side. They will inform the business owner that I am legally permitted to have my dog with me, and if the business owner doesn’t comply, they risk a fine. In fact, I have my city’s police department’s phone number in my contacts, and when I meet a belligerent business owner, I actually offer to call the police for them. While there have been a couple of occasions where the police have also been unaware of the laws they have sworn to uphold and have told me that I must leave with my dog, that is the worst thing that can happen to me. I leave the business and promise myself that I will never patronize it again. Maybe, if I have the mental fortitude, I send a letter to the head office of the company, or to the media, to lodge a complaint, which may net me an official apology if I’m lucky.
This is not the story for many PoC. I am sure most of you have seen news stories regarding business owners calling the police on PoC who were quietly minding their own business in public. In many of these cases, a huge police presence arrives, the PoC is arrested, and physical harm can sometimes follow. Many PoC have spoken out saying that they fear and distrust the police, with good reason. As a white person, I can freely assume the police are my allies. PoC don’t have that vital privilege.
Those who conflate these two types of discrimination frequently justify it by claiming it’s the only way to call public and media attention to the plight of service dog handlers. I have seen several social media posts in which a white service dog user points to a news story where a PoC was ejected from a store or denied access to an Airbnb, urging their followers to replace the PoC in the story with a service dog handler. While it is true that discrimination against guide dog users rarely makes the news, it is also true that the overwhelming majority of discriminatory acts against PoC fails to reach the media, too. I do believe that society would benefit from a more robust media that fairly covers issues relevant to PoC and people with disabilities, but I do not believe that erasing the experiences of the PoC for the benefit of service dog users is the right way to achieve that aim. Both issues need to be in the spotlight, and even though people with disabilities often feel justifiably ignored, I don’t believe white handlers should be pushing other marginalized people aside to draw attention to our own issues.
What about empathy, you ask? What about common ground? Empathizing is important, and we are absolutely free to use our experiences as service dog handlers to show empathy for other marginalized groups. I have personally felt the humiliation of being ejected from a public place, and I know firsthand that it feels terrible. That being said, I wouldn’t use my ability to empathize as a method of erasure, especially when the discrimination caused by my dog has a much different origin, and far less harmful results. I can see the ways in which my experiences relate to what a PoC goes through, but I’d never state the two are interchangeable.
Fellow white handlers, we can and should do better. We should call out discrimination when we see it because we know it is wrong, and we know that it hurts. We should stand together and demand equal rights for everyone, not just the groups we are a part of. And we should work against the instinct to erase or distract from the voices of other groups to amplify our own. There is plenty of room out there for all our grievances without denying anyone else the attention theirs deserve.