We talk about the art of getting naked or of flower arranging, but we never speak of the art of becoming disabled. In America disability is discussed simply as rehabilitation, as if living is no more complicated than lighting a stove.
The art of getting disabled is a necessary subject. When we look to history we find examples of this art everywhere. Disabled makers stand against loss. They make something of difference. When traveling in France Thomas Jefferson broke his wrist. A surgeon set the break badly. A major facet of his life was changed forever. He was forced to put aside his treasured violin. In turn he took up long, slow, leisurely horseback rides as a meditative practice.
Blind people don’t necessarily need dogs. White cane travel is a very fine way to get around. But I say guide dog travel is an art. It’s a means toward living much as Jefferson learned to live. Moving in consort with an excellent animal is one way to make a life. Art is mysterious. Some find a path to a certain form. Some find an unlike form.
Oh I know Jefferson sang to his horses. He was very fond of singing. Moving in consort requires it I think.
It’s hard to imagine singing to a white cane.
Do you need to sing to live well? No. I’ve a great good friend who is nonspeaking. But in turn his whole body is music.
My deaf friends sing.
“You got to keep something moving all the time,” said Huddle Ledbetter, otherwise known as “Leadbelly” when asked how he played the 12 string guitar.
Many of my wheelchair pals are dancers.
Several of my disabled friends are comedians.
We crackle, zip, exhale, inhale, sport with our fingers, flap, jump, pop wheelies, and jingle with harnesses.
Resourceful life is practiced. Sometimes it is silly. Art can and often should be frivolous. With permission from curators at the Museum of Modern Art I was once allowed to spin Marcel DuChamp’s famous wheel, a bicycle fork with front wheel mounted upside-down on a wooden stool. DuChamp was a DaDaist. He made art by placing things side by side that did not formally belong together. A MOMA staff member handed me a pair of latex gloves and I pulled them on and with Corky watching beside me, I reached out and gave DuChamp’s aluminum wheel a spin. “This is the steering wheel of my life,” I thought. Eccentric motion. A dog walking life not always understood by others, but simple and smoothly elegant.
No you don’t need a dog, or any other animal if you have a disability. Solo life contains its own joys.
I certainly know some blind folks who would say I’m over the top talking about art in the context of service dog life. I know people who say a guide dog is just a mobility aid. I’m fine with that. As long as they’re kind to their dog machines I’ve nothing to say about this view. To each his own. I have friends who don’t like poetry. I don’t think their worlds are harmed by their disinterest. All I know for sure is what a guide dog can do. Though the stationary wheel of your life seemed forever stopped, she says give it a turn. You’ll be surprised where the imagination can take you.
Nowadays one thing the blind have to contend with is service dog proliferation. There are many kinds of professionally trained dogs performing dozens of assistive tasks for disabled people. This is a very good thing in my view, as dogs and humans working together can change the world or at least the playing field. Service dogs are, in the strictest sense, dogs trained specifically to help the disabled manage one or more life functions that otherwise would be impossible.
In fact that’s what disability is — a function disjunction. The ADA makes it clear:
The term ‘disability’ means, with respect to an individual (A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual, (B) a record of such an impairment or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment. Major life activities
include: but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.
Major bodily functions means: “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.”
The range of disability is broad not because bureaucrats have big imaginations but because substantial limitations are wide spread in a complex society. In turn, when thinking of service dogs, I’m reminded of the digital slogan: “there’s an app for that.” Nowadays there’s a dog for almost any disability as canines assist wheelchair users retrieve objects, open cupboards, hand money to cashiers or help with balance, just to name a few of their skills. Dogs are trained to detect the onset of seizures or help hearing impaired people detect audible signals. Some dogs assist diabetics by sensing changes in blood sugar. There are dogs to help children with autism and dogs who accompany people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All these skills reflect the amazing talents of dogs and the pioneering vision of the guide dog movement which started the service dog industry by pairing trained dogs with blind veterans.
Despite the acceptance and advantages of working dogs many who use them are experiencing increasing obstacles in public. One reason is dogs are often trained to help people with invisible disabilities. Many wounded warriors are being helped by extraordinary dogs trained to help with anxiety. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is crippling but it can’t always be seen. Ironically, when a trained dog helps its owner stay focused and calm, his or her disability won’t be at all apparent. Legitimate service dog users are routinely denied entrance to public venues and are often humiliated. Lately the stories have been piling up on my desk — a service man and his superbly trained dog were recently booted out of a fast food restaurant; another veteran not long ago was denied access on a public bus. A legally blind woman, whose blindness allows her what’s called “residual vision” was recently hassled in a movie theater by another customer who argued loudly that she and her dog were fakes. As I say, the stories are legion. Not long ago I was prevented from entering a restaurant near Central Park by an overly officious doorman. He didn’t question my disability — he questioned whether my dog was legit.
Some argue these problems could be prevented by requiring service dog users to carry identification cards. But there’s a good reason we’re not compelled to do this — my disability is my business and not yours. Why should I have to disclose that I have a psychiatric condition or a neurological disease? Moreover the ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to assist an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.
The simplest way to tell if an a dog is a working animal is by its professionalism. If you’re a business owner the law does not force you to endure a misbehaving animal. In fact it’s the performance of a service dog that really matters — not just in traffic or in crowds, but everywhere. Public life is the goal for the disabled but I fear the village square is narrowing and has grown more covetous over the past decade. Not long ago a reporter for a major New York tabloid took her own badly behaved dog into a famous restaurant, telling the manager she had a disability, knowing full well she didn’t need to produce any proof. Then she ostentatiously encouraged her dog to eat off plates on tables. Her point? Anyone can bring his or her dog anywhere because of the specious ADA. Lost on on this writer is the hoary fact that people can imitate anything in America. If you wish, you can pretend to be a Rockefeller or dress as a priest. We’ve always been a nation of con men and the able bodied have always pretended to be disabled, imagining advantages like better parking or early boarding on airplanes. But here’s what I suggest: Look for the professionalism of the disabled and their companion animals and try to remember the village is open space, and we’re here: women, men and our dogs.