Op-ed: The impact of fake service animals
I have come to the realization that I have been underestimating the people of AU. During my past years on campus, I have neglected to speak about my experience of having a service dog - mostly because I was sure that not only would people not understand, but that I would be met with a level of distrust and general disinterest that I could not handle.
However, at a party a few nights ago, I had an interaction with a person who, after the smallest bit of my input, understood parts of my situation with such a level of clarity that I was left questioning a few firmly held beliefs. My eyes were opened to the idea that if I was perhaps a bit more forthcoming about the challenges I face and the concerns I have that center around my service animal and me, I might be able to alleviate some of both my challenges and concerns.
While I have many things that I would love to discuss, I thought it best to talk about a recent issue developing on campus: instances of people bringing their animals to class and into official AU buildings under the guise of being service animals.
As someone with an invisible disability, I know for a fact that I cannot necessarily identify the need for a service animal by looking at a person. However, as someone who has had to use the Americans with Disabilities Act to defend their personal rights many times, I can absolutely tell you what a service animal is and is not. A service animal is either a miniature pony or a dog that is individually trained to perform tasks that directly serve their handler who has a disability.
No other animal can be considered a service animal. No person without a disability can have a service animal. If you are bringing an animal around with you and these conditions are not met, you do not have a service animal. Only service animals are protected under the ADA, and, as of right now, that means that your emotional support, therapy or comfort animal cannot claim the same rights as my service dog. Period.
I do not say this to discredit the role of emotional support, therapy or comfort animals. There is a whole different discussion to be had on this topic, and it is an important one, but I bring them up because the language of “service dog” is so important in the face of the law.
I rely on the ADA to protect the rights of my service dog and myself so that I can be a productive member of society. The law protects Leila and me because we meet certain guidelines and agree to certain rules and regulations. We uphold our part of the law so that we will be defended when I am discriminated against for my disability.
Emotional support, therapy and comfort animals do not have to perform disability relieving tasks and they do not require training. For this reason, they cannot be considered as part of the same contract that binds service dogs, their handlers and the law.
By calling an animal a “service animal,” you state that you are part of this contact, and that you have a pony or dog that has been trained to assist you with your disability. If you use these words arbitrarily, people will believe that they are interacting with a service animal, and the way your animal behaves will not only reflect on my dog, but it will reflect on how the rest of the world treats me. One fake service dog’s behavior can create a stigma that impacts the entire community in unbelievable ways.
When you claim you have a service animal, you claim a lot more than animal companionship - you claim a disability. If you do not have one, you are appropriating what can often be a life-long struggle for many people.
A service animal is not a pet, and it is not a ‘sometimes’ accommodation. The only reason you would claim to have a service animal in an attempt to keep your pet with you is because you do not understand what it means. Every shower, every club meeting, every party, every sexual moment, you have this animal with you.
I realize that few of you know me personally, but trust me when I say you disrespect me by implying that you would choose my health status in order to have a dog with you. You disrespect everyone with a legitimate service animal. You disrespect our dogs by implying that your untrained puppy holds a candle to their skills. I would give up anything to be healthy enough to not need a service dog.
I hope this grants you a bit of perspective on service animals, their handlers and why I am so distressed about some of the recent events on campus. I do not want to live my life in silence anymore, wondering why people don’t understand. I want you to understand. I look forward to writing more pieces on this topic, and to answering any questions or concerns you may have.
Xena Itzkowitz is a junior in the School of International Service and the College of Arts and Sciences.