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You Just Have to Understand

Today, some friends and I had a discussion about whether or not to self-identify as a person with a service dog, when making arrangements for rides in taxis or services like Uber. Transportation companies in particular have a long history of illegally refusing rides to people accompanied by a service animal. For the purposes of this journal entry, it’s important to know, that under the Americans with disabilities act, ADA, a service animal is a tool, used to mitigate a disability. In my case, a guide dog. Now, of course, I don’t think of my dog as a tool, but under the law, that is what she is. My dog has no legal rights beyond the right of any dog, but *I* have the right to be accompanied by my mobility tool in any public accommodation—provided my mobility tool is under control and behaves properly. Yes, shocking maybe, because few people seem to know this, but a person with a service dog can be asked to leave with the dog, if the dog is not under control. But for the law, the dog is the same as a cane or wheel chair.

In the course of the discussion, some friends said they always let taxis or other services know they are accompanied by a dog, as it will save possible hassle and or because it’s “the polite thing to do”. I am on the other side of the fence, as any who read this might guess. I will not give advance warning. The ADA has been in existence for twenty-five years now, and there is absolutely no excuse for anyone to disobey that law or to expect me to tolerate their breaking it. Oh, did I forget to mention that the ADA specifically states that a person with a disability may not be forced to self-identify? This is why those of us who use service animals are not required to carry identification or certification for the dog, and it is why it is expressly forbidden for places or business of public accommodation to require that we give advance notice. Just as it’s illegal to expect a person of a different race or gender to self-identify. So why do so many people with disabilities still think they have to do it? I’ve been thinking about this all day, and here’s what I think. Besides the fact that most people still don’t think of disability as a minority but rather a medical or charitable situation that is?

If we are born with a disability or become disabled very young, we are taught from our earliest age that we should not make waves.

“Oh, Honey, I know it’s upsetting that they treated you this way, but you’ve just got to understand. They don’t know any better. They’ve never been around anyone who is blind, deaf, in a wheel chair, … Be patient, give them time. They just have to get used to you. You just have to understand.”


Why are people with disabilities the only minority group who has to just understand and be patient? For the rest of this article, I’ll just refer to my blindness, but this applies to any group with disabilities.

Let’s try a few similar scenarios as the one I just wrote. How would these go over?

“Oh dear, you’re African American, and you’re upset that the white employer over there wouldn’t give you a job? Oh Honey, you just have to understand. That white guy just isn’t used to being around people with dark skin. You’ve got to be patient. Just let them get used to you. Don’t get upset. You’ve just got to understand.”

Um, sure, and we all know our history, and we know how long our African American brothers and sisters had to fight attitudes like that! What would happen today if they were given that load of bull? What happens anytime a public official makes a boneheaded bigoted remark like that? Headlines scream. Why don’t the headlines scream for people with disabilities?

How about this situation.

“Oh Sweetie. You’re a woman, and I know you’re frustrated that men get paid more than you for the same work. And you’re so tired of beating your head against that glass ceiling, trying to get that promotion you so richly deserve. Oh Honey, I know it’s frustrating, but you just have to understand. Men just aren’t used to women’s equality yet. Be patient. Let them get used to you. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t fight it, don’t make noise, don’t raise bloody hell. You just have to understand.”

Yeah, right, sure. How well would today’s women tolerate that sort of attitude if it was stated baldly and publicly? Would the headlines scream again?

What about the headlines recently, when owners of Christian businesses refused to serve customers who are gay? Oh my how the headlines screamed! And yet, where is the screaming when day after day after day after day, people with service dogs are routinely refused rides from Taxi drivers or drivers of services like Uber, because it’s supposedly against their religion to be around a dog? Why is one of those situations wrong but the other is acceptable? Nope, no screaming headlines here.

Why do we hear those running for President, both Democrat and Republican, constantly reaching out to try to get the African American vote and the women’s vote, but they never vehemently proclaim their need for the disability vote. And even if they pay lip service to it, other than President Bush the first signing the ADA into law, what do they do, publicly? What do they do, what laws or bills do they help get passed, what media coverage do they get for the needs of the disabled? Ha! Do they even know or care that seventy percent and more of all working age people who are blind are unemployed? Do they care or know that of those who are employed, a huge percentage are under-employed in sheltered workshop type environments, receiving ridiculously below minimum wage salaries?

Where is the media? Where are the screaming headlines? I get news alerts from CNN every time the unemployment rate goes up and down, but is there ever coverage of the appalling rate of unemployment among people with disabilities? Nope. Do they think, like the general public, that people who are blind can’t possibly be productive employees, that maybe their disability will cause excessive absenteeism, that it would be dangerous for the workplace or the blind person to work, do they think we can’t find the bathroom or dress ourselves so how could we possibly do a job? Would it surprise them to know I have been consistently employed for twenty-five years? And yes, in a job interview once, I was asked how I would find the bathroom. And another friend who talked to a colleague of his about a possible job for me was asked if I would be able to dress appropriately. Oh boy. We have a hell of a long way to go, don’t we?

So, I think upbringing, societal pressure, and sheer exhaustion over fighting the same old thing over and over for a lifetime, constantly having to stick up for our rights and getting tired of it, I think that all plays into the attitudes. It gets so old having to beat our heads against the walls and remind the world that we are equal citizens. We’re not beggars at the feast. We don’t want to be objects of charity. We want our piece of the dream. And so some of us give up fighting. And I understand that, even if it isn’t my way. And may I be fighting till my last breath!

But honestly, after a lifetime of being told, “You just have to understand” I think it’s everyone else’s turn. For those who read this and shake their heads, thinking I just don’t get it, okay, it’s your turn, step forward, take a chance. You just have to understand!

If you’d like to read more on this topic, I highly recommend the following book.

By Mary Johnson

This book was published in 2003. Sadly, it was relevant and true then, and even more sadly, it is still relevant and true today.