Microaggressions Against Service Dog Handlers

By J. Wyatt Regner

I hustle briskly down the sidewalk, on my way to the library. Flop flop flopping along the pavement beside me in his sneakers, my service dog, Benny, glances up at me. It takes us longer than usual to get to the library that day, not because the shoes slow him down, but because they have a magnetic effect on the public.

I decide to cut through Newcomb Hall, assuming it will be a shortcut. The usual gasps, aws, and whispers of “service dog” and “look at his shoes” follow us through the building. These we grew accustomed to long ago. They follow us everywhere.

We round a corner and find ourselves suddenly encircled by three women. They reach for Benny, cooing and fussing over him.

“Look at those shoooeees! Ain’t he fancy!”

“Oh, what a HANDSOME dog!”

“I’d take that baby home with me in a second!”

They seem to have no plans of acknowledging that I, the human at the other end of the leash, exist.

“Excuse me,” I try politely, then more forcefully after I go unheard.

Without a single glance in my direction, they part just enough for Benny and me to squeeze past. We continue on our way, a little more ruffled than we were. We have several more encounters on our way to the library – drive-by petting, gasps and stares, and many, MANY questions. Each person seems to think they’re the only ones asking for a moment over our time. Despite the fact that they definitely are not, I always pause, give them a polite, but curt response, and continue about my day.

I don’t mind educating the public. I even enjoy being an advocate. However, there are specific interactions that feel an awful lot like microaggressions. Typically, these exchanges go in one of three ways.

In the first scenario, I am approached by an insatiably curious individual. They quickly launch into a series of questions – sometimes about Benny and his training, but other times about me, my medical history, or my credentials as a trainer. These questions are occasionally accompanied by an infantilizing tone of voice. Despite the fact that it can feel like an interrogation, I prefer these situations most because they present the largest opportunity for the facilitation of change. Still, it cannot be forgotten that this probing constitutes an invasion of privacy and a monopolization of a disabled person’s limited energy. It’s as if these individuals feel they have a right to satiate their curiosity. They can’t help but notice, ask, pry.

In the second scenario, I enter a room and someone makes a huge scene over Benny, much like the situation that unfolded with the three women. They fawn over him, grab at him, try to call him over – completely impervious to my presence. These occurrences are actually incredibly dangerous for service dog handlers because they distract service dogs from their jobs. Many service dogs are trained to help their handlers navigate safely or alert to impending medical emergencies. If a service dog fails to perform, it could result in a life-or-death situation. People who interact with my service dog frequently say things like, “I can’t help it! He’s so cute!” But the fact of the matter is their lack of impulse control could LITERALLY kill someone.

Additionally, these situations marginalize disabled individuals by treating them as though they don’t exist or lack an identity beyond their adaptive equipment. There is a boy living in my dorm hall whom Benny and I frequently run into. Whenever he sees us, he says, “Hi, Benny!” and keeps walking. This is a brief, unimportant interaction, but it frustrates me endlessly because he never acknowledges I exist. I don’t even think he knows my name. He only knows me as my medical equipment – the only visible sign of my disability. Failing to notice the person behind the adaptive equipment devalues their existence. At its best, it makes a person with a disability feel unimportant. At its worst, it endangers a person with a disability and violates their human rights.

The third scenario, I hypothesize, is the product of something commonly told to children: “Don’t stare.” In my experience, this is taken too far and leads to the alienation of people with disabilities. When Benny and I enter a room, people sometimes quickly avert their gaze, stealing quick glances when they think we aren’t looking. People also avoid talking to or sitting near Benny and me in classes. I believe “don’t stare” misses the point because it’s often interpreted as “do not engage.” In an ideal world, people would pay disabled people exactly the same amount of attention as anyone else because we really aren’t that different. THAT is what needs to be taught.

I consider each of these scenarios to be microaggressions because they devalue the disabled individual, deny them the respect they deserve, and distance them from the rest of society. I understand this isn’t the intention of MOST people who inappropriately interact with Benny and me. However, I’d like to point out that most microaggressions are not intended offenses, but the products of ignorance.

I do not pretend to speak for all people with disabilities. At the end of the day, it is always best to ask the individual how they prefer to interact with the public. In my experience though, I feel most validated when people acknowledge ME and ignore my service dog. When I pass someone on the sidewalk and they look me in the eye and say hello, it always brightens my day. A quick, “I like your dog!” is great, too, because it’s addressed to me, rather than my dog. It allows me to feel as though I can share in the public’s appreciation of Benny. I also love when someone takes an interest in my life OUTSIDE of my disability or medical equipment. Those who spend the time will find I have a whole slew of hobbies, ideas, and stories that make me uniquely and unequivocally me.

Wyatt Regner is a second year transfer student at UVA pursuing a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and a minor in American Sign Language and Deaf culture. After graduating, he hopes to work as an occupational therapist and service dog trainer, helping people with disabilities live life to the fullest. Wyatt currently participates in UVA’s Disability Advocacy and Action Committee (DAAC), as well as the Chronically Ill and Disabled Cavs (CIDC). He is also a certified professional dog trainer and owns B.R.A.V.E. Dog Training LLC based in Leesburg, VA.

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