O! What A Beautiful Dog!

Being out and about with an assistance dog is a mixed blessing.  Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t be without a guide dog any more than I’d poke my eyes out.  But there’s always a downside, and the main obstacle to freedom with an assistance animal is Other People – aka “Morons”.

Morons, like bacteria, are everywhere.  Even people with intelligence, reflectiveness and compassion can fall victim to Temporary Canine-Related Moronia [TCRM] when they unexpectedly encounter an assistance dog.  And unless you have a friend with an assistance dog and you’re visiting them at their home, every encounter with such a dog is unexpected.  Particularly since most people never look down in the course of normal day-to-day activities; meaning that many people begin an assistance-dog-encounter with the sensation of a wet nose in the palm, or a wagging tail against the leg, or the yelp of a helpless beast who has just had their paw or tail stood upon.

For us humans who have dogs as an extra limb[s] or sense, these encounters also have a particular character.  Some have the shape of another person [Moron] jumping in shock or fear; then either apologising or talking to an animal who clearly doesn’t have the faculty to answer their direct questions; e.g. “Aren’t you beautiful?”, “What’s your name?”, “How old are you then?” etc.  I leave it up to my canine companion to answer those questions if he sees fit.

Then there are random statements from strangers.  I call these “statements” because I have yet to think of a polite, relevant response.  These take the form:

(a) “That’s a beautiful dog”,

(b) “Does he take good care of you?”

and occasionally something like

(c) “God bless you”.

My inner responses to these, which I’m simply too nice to utter aloud, go something like:

(a)        “Thank you, I made him all by myself.”

(b)        “Yes, he makes my dinner, brushes my hair and picks up my poo.  No, wait – it’s the other way around.”

(c)        “Even if there was some kind of omnipotent being, which there patently isn’t, don’t you think the available evidence rather points to him having cursed rather than blessed me?  Lifetime impairments and chronic pain seem an unnecessarily obtuse way for an all-loving deity to show their favour, don’t you think?  Or maybe, and I favour this alternative myself, ‘He’ has a seriously fucking sick sense of humour.”

So generally, I respond to such statements with a wan smile if I can be arsed; or with feigned deaf-blindness if I can’t.  And let’s face it, most Morons can’t tell the difference between deafness, blindness and idiocy.

Another symptom of TCRM is the loss of the ability to read.  Most guide dogs and assistance dogs have their role written in English (or other native / widely understood tongue) somewhere on their person.  My dog has a luminous strip on his lead saying “Guide Dog”, as well as a day-glo sign attached to his harness reading “Please don’t distract me, I’m working”.  These clearly turn to some sort of gibberish in the minds of people suffering from TCRM, since I have been asked “Is that a racing dog?”; and been refused entry to businesses that display a sign saying “No dogs allowed EXCEPT GUIDE DOGS”.  Mostly, Morons just feel free to attract the dog’s attention – sometimes when we’re halfway across a road – or just approach the dog directly to pat his head and purr babblingly into his ear.  A precious few humans seem to be able to shake free, at least in part, from TCRM to ask if they can pet the dog.  However, the TCRM still prevents them from being able to perceive whether I’m in the middle of a private conversation, commercial transaction or in a hurry to get to work.  Even if I say “no, sorry, he’s not allowed to socialise when he’s working” or some other polite way of saying “fuck off”, the Moron will often attempt to draw a lecture on dog breeding or training out of me.  (Very few wheelchair users get stopped on the street by a stranger who wants to admire their chair and discuss design and engineering.)

An added difficulty that arises from this constant interference is not obvious at first, even to the person using the guide dog.  When your dog goes everywhere with you, it gets to know your friends and colleagues.  Those friends who come round to your house to hang out also get the opportunity to play with and cuddle the dog when it’s off duty.  So when you go to meet a friend, in a crowded café or busy bar, the dog recognises its friends and makes its way toward them.  This is really helpful if you can’t recognise someone until their face is inches away from yours.  However, if all the Morons reach out to cuddle and distract your dog as you try in vain to squeeze past their drunkenly immobile arses, the dog starts to hink “we’re making loads of new friends tonight!”  When the half-cut barfly then turns to engage you in dog-related conversation, it can take some time for the human to realise that this isn’t an old friend or even a vague acquaintance, but rather some old lech who could potentially become a stalker. (This happened to me, albeit when I was using a white cane rather than a guide dog.)

Finally, there is the sheer boredom of having The Dog Conversation countless times per day.  Temporary Canine-Related Moronia can go undiagnosed for years if the sufferer has regular contact with dogs.  Therefore, when a TCRM patient approaches an assistance dog, they already have an interest in, and stories about, dogs; often those suffering most acutely have experienced loss of a particular canine companion who bears some resemblance to the assistance dog in question.  [In fact, independent research suggests that the virus thought to cause TCRM adapts itself to a particular breed and gender of dog.  Although any dog would make a decent host, with the human acting as vector [carrier], the virus is most strongly attracted to the breed and gender of dog to which it initially adapted.  The virus may even drive its human vector to ask questions about the age, sex, pedigree and character of the assistance dog as a means for the virus to establish the suitability of its new canine host.  Once it has identified a viable host, the human vector must make physical contact with the dog, paying no attention to other humans in the vicinity, to enable the virus to transfer to its new host.]  Thus, The Dog Conversation replicates itself exponentially, as we smile and nod politely and remember that we are ambassadors for all people with disabilities…

 Isauq (Isaac) on the bus, looking a bit fed up.

Despite all this ranting,  I must admit to occasionally enjoying The Dog Conversation, and letting certain people off the No Touchy He Worky rule.  No amount of general irritation could possibly detract from the incredible freedom given by working with an assistance dog.  This rant is usually internal: I express it here for the dual purposes of entertainment and edification.

THE NEW (or maybe not-so-new) APARTHEID

I first met Kiwi Katie about four years ago, when I was still using my legs and she had just started using a wheelchair.  The Citizens’ Information Board was conducting research into the housing needs of people with disabilities, and this was their final focus group: one which actually included a few people with disabilities.

Katie caught my eye – or more accurately, my ear – as another articulate, young and motivated person with disabilities.  It was something of a relief not to be the only person talking in the room.

We finally got a smoke break, and Katie and I got to talking.  At some point in the conversation, she described the experience of using a wheelchair as “apartheid”.  I was shocked.  It’s a very loaded term, especially for those of us who witnessed the release of Nelson Mandela with joy.

But Katie went on: “I can’t go in the front door – I’m sent around to the servants’ entrance.  Our toilets are segregated.  I can’t use the mainstream bus service.  I can’t get onto a college campus or into an employer’s business premises.”  And I saw, to my horror, that she was right.

 

The parallels between the experiences of people with disabilities and people living in an ethnically segregated regime were deliciously demonstrated for me in an unexpected form.  “Better Off Ted” is one of those rare, witty, intelligent, satirical US sit-coms – and yes, it got cancelled after only 2 series.  The “sit” of this particular “com” is a department of a massive and sinister multinational corporation, “Veridian Dynamics”, and the characters work in research and development and product testing – from cow-free beef (“the meat-blob”) to weaponised pumpkins via glow-in-the-dark squirrels.


*** SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! ALERT! THERE’S A SPOILER COMING! ***

 

In one episode, “Racial Sensitivity”, one of our scientist buddies finds things in the lab mysteriously turning themselves off and on.  He tries to activate the motion sensors which control the lighting, then the doors, the toilets, drinking fountains, the lift… all to no avail.  The heroic Ted (his boss) goes to find out from Veronica (Ted’s boss) what’s going on.

The answer turns out to be that the company has upgraded all the systems in the building from being motion activated to being light activated; specifically, light reflected off human skin.  This means “it doesn’t see black people”, which Veronica is told by her superiors is a positive thing, since it sees Asians, Hispanics and Jews.

Rather than reverting to the old system, the company starts to install “Manual Drinking Fountains: For Black Employees Only”and the like.  Our scientist buddy at the centre of this says; “Thank God we don’t have a company bus”.

Their next attempt is to employ a bunch of minimum-waged white guys to follow every black employee around to “activate stuff” for them.  But Human Resources is concerned that this is discriminatory recruitment practice, so they’ll need to hire another black guy to follow the white guy who’s following the black employee, then the second black employee will need another white guy to follow him, and so on ad infinitum.  The case is finally made to the company bosses that they simply didn’t have the parking to employ every human being on the planet by 2012, and the old motion detectors are reinstalled.

 

The experiences of the black characters in this episode finding themselves unable to open doors, turn on the lights or use the lift are instantly recognisable to a lot of people with disabilities.  It even follows the parallel “solutions” of installing separate facilities for us, or of employing “normal” people to bridge that gap for us.  When the central character in these events (Lem) decides he’s had enough of this segregation, he says to his colleague, Phil: “I still have my dignity! Now will you please come with me so I can use the toilet!”  Sound familiar, fellow mutants?

 

This may be quite a convoluted way of making a point, but I think it’s a good exercise in context, perspective and humour.  It is valid to describe the supports and services and basic amenities available to people with disabilities as “apartheid”, and it is also valid that this is schocking.  So it should be.  I have no idea whether the writers of “Better Off Ted” had any thought in their head about disability rights issues, but they have nonetheless created a challenging, effective and funny picture of what it takes for person with disabilities to do those “simple” things that others take for granted, be it using a toilet or walking through the front door.

Adam Hills – Spokesperson for Mutants

A couple of YouTube clips of Australian comedian Adam Hills’ stand-up show, “Characterful / Joymonger” – some of the best commentary on disability in mainstream media!

My manual wheelchair, decoratively inspired by Adam Hills

My manual wheelchair, decoratively inspired by Adam Hills

Thus far, I’ve been unable to locate a clip of his suggestion to replace the term “disabled” with the term “mutant”, because “you’d think twice before parking in a Mutant parking space”.

 

The beginning of Adam Hills’ stand-up show where he introduces his sign-language interpreter.

Near the end of the stand-up show, Adam talks about some of the ridiculous comments and bureaucracy encountered in relation to disability