Guest Post: The Unwritten Dress Code For Service Dogs at Graduation

 

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Image Description: A golden retriever in a work harness wearing a graduation cap with a black and white tassel.

 

Graduation season is again upon us, which means students across the US and Canada are donning their graduation regalia and marching across the stage. It is also the time of year local news agencies around the country start reporting on the adorable service dogs that are also prancing along the stage with their handlers. If a local news agency is picking the story up, there’s a good chance the service dog was wearing a cap and gown as well.

With the current graduation style trend incorporating decorated hats, and other colorful accessories, it’s easy to brush this parallel trend under the umbrella of fashion and the euphoria of the day. However, there are differences between how abled-bodied students choose to express themselves, and how the handlers of these service dogs are treated.

People frequently anthropomorphize animals. Dogs do not seek personal gratification through earning honorary degrees, nor do they understand or care about public displays of adoration. Service dogs work because they enjoy it, because they get to hang out with their handlers all day, and because of perks like getting showered with love when they do a good job. Yet every year dogs across the country are given honorary degrees.

These degrees are handed out not for the sake of the student or their accompanying service animal, because it certainly does not reflect either the student’s academic prowess nor how the dog perceives affection. No, it is instead a phenomenal opportunity for universities to get showered with praise for being so welcoming to students with disabilities, and is free advertising. In effect, it is a publicity stunt intended to serve the needs of the higher education institution. Perhaps it also serves to get donations to the progressive school who supported their student with the service dog.

The scheme does little to showcase how accommodating schools are to their students with disabilities. No one is going to pat the university on the back and tell them how amazing they are for having their staff spend weeks before school is even in session sitting at a scanner working on making materials accessible for students. But you can bet someone is going to hand over a fistful of cash when they see an adorable dog on stage receiving an honorary degree.

With the amount of pressure being put on grads to put their service dogs miniature regalia, you would think that there was some kind of dress code we’re all unaware of. When I told staff that I was just going to put a few flowers and ribbon in the university colors on O’Hara’s harness, it was met with serious disappointment. Staff tried to convince me how adorable it would be to have her in a little outfit. Service dogs don’t exist to add an entertaining cute factor to university sponsored events—or any event. O’Hara’s role that night was to do what she does every day. To guide me safely around obstacles, and keep me safe. Given the extra distractions of a loud audience, unfamiliar environments, the stopping repeatedly, and other strange going-ons, O’Hara didn’t need to be worried about wearing a cap and gown when I needed her to worry about where the microphone cord was, and making sure I didn’t faceplant.

The graduation of service dog handlers from universities does not mean it’s open season for publicity stunts for those universities, or regalia companies, or anyone else. Service dogs are not an excuse to exploit them to increase the cute factor for entertainment, or for inspiration. Pressuring handlers into putting regalia on their dogs is not acceptable, and they don’t owe you the chance to see a charming dog all dressed up. In fact, the only thing handlers and their dogs owe to anyone, is respect for the other half of their service dog team. I happily chose to dress up O’Hara’s harness with ribbons and flowers. It was simple, understated, and did not disrupt her work. Nor did it play directly into hands of a publicity stunt. More importantly, it was an artistic expression of self, which was exactly what all the other students were doing with their own adornments. O’Hara did more than look pretty in regalia that day, she did her job with poise, and served me with all the dignity her training called for. That is something that cannot be represented in regalia.

 

Author bio:

Kit is a freelance writer and public speaker working toward the inclusion of people with disabilities in STEM fields. She currently runs Femme de Chem a source for science, disability, and geek news that is 100% accessible.

 

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Looking Back at #CrippingTheMighty

It has been eleven days since The Mighty post that inspired #CrippingTheMighty. A lot of good has come out of the hashtag. I have been exposed to new activist voices. My post on my initial take on the situation was shared widely on twitter and Facebook. It was even referenced by one of my favourite activist writers s.e. smith (so I had a little fangirl moment).

Ultimately, I think the most positive thing that came out of #CrippingTheMighty was the connections made between activists and the creation of a space (however shortlived) to air our grievances. I continue to believe as I did when I initially wrote about #CrippingTheMighty, that The Mighty is not going to change. In fact my interactions with the hashtag have only reinforced this belief.

If you go through the hashtag, you will find that The Mighty never interacts with disabled activists in any real public way, beyond systematically following every person who participated in #CrippingTheMighty on twitter.

Though they did publicly apologize for the particular offending post (a bingo game mocking autism meltdowns), they fail to understand how that post was not the only problem but rather just the tipping point. They did pay lip service to the fact that there has been push-back about their content from the disability community. In a later post they asked us to be part of a “conversation“. This conversation they propose is simply writing to their general feedback e-mail. I have no faith that they will listen to any of the people who in good faith wrote to them with honest feedback about necessary changes. The conversation The Mighty is willing to have is private where they can control the outcome. There is no accountability about what feedback they receive and why they did or more likely did not choose to act on it.

When The Mighty proposed that conversation, a conversation was already going on in full force on Twitter. The Mighty chose not to engage with us in that public forum. I’ll acknowledge that Twitter isn’t the greatest place for in depth discussions of the systemic issues within the Mighty but it would have been a start. There are also other forums not limited to 140 characters which would allow for a more open and accountable discourse.

The Mighty is however only interested in paying lip service to accountability. This is because as I said in my previous post, The Mighty despite its stated aims (helping disabled people) is really a safe space for parents of disabled children and avid consumers of inspiration porn. Changing the site to be in line with actually helping disabled people would alienate its largest reader base.

Further as s.e. smith points out, The Mighty has deep pockets and that funding would absolutely dry up if they ended their click-bait model. They would no longer have Venture Capitalists throwing money at them and their ad revenue would be less.

The people who most often frequenting The Mighty do not want to learn about disability, they want to have their preconceived notions confirmed. Disabled people who have ventured into the comment sections on The Mighty have found themselves attacked. If they point out ableism they are told to be forgiving and to understand that people just don’t know any better, if they are not dismissed outright. These people don’t want to learn, they hold up their ignorance as a shield.

These people are also not internet trolls. They are not arguing for its own sake or to harass, they do it out of a genuine sense of righteousness. They either believe that we are wrong or expect to much change to fast.

This does not account for everyone who visits The Mighty. One disabled writer for The Mighty did experience positive feedback from some of the nondisabled writers. She however details a lot of push-back from many others. Another disabled writer for the site felt so attacked by the nondisabled writers that they had to leave The Mighty’s private Facebook group for writers.

I feels like the progress made from within The Mighty is often one at a time while thousands stream past unaffected by internal activism. Which is not to say that changing individuals minds is not powerful and necessary. People who choose to try and change from within must be ready to expect more failures than successes.

In the sea of inspiration and pity porn that is The Mighty, those stories that stand out as positive, accurate portrayals of disability, by disabled people, end up being read and reinterpreted by The Mighty’s predominantly nondisabled readership as being the inspiration, those authors often actively fight against being.

I have said before that in the eyes of the media, disability is imaginary. It is a state to be defined and understood by people who do not personally experience it. You see this phenomenon at every level of media from fictional film and television to supposed news media.

The framing around disability in the media is wrong and harmful and within that framework even those pieces which seek to challenge the status quo can be assimilated into the very worldview they challenge.

People who write progressive pieces for The Mighty run the risk of being “SuperCripped” being placed on pedestals as individual examples of success rather than voices that actually echo the opinions and needs of the many. This is reinforced by just how few positive representations of disability exist on The Mighty.

The Mighty defends this false balance by arguing that everyone should have a say. Though why parents get more of a say than actual disabled people is not clearly articulated.

People have said that they would be ok with The Mighty if it just owned up to its parent focused, pity and inspiration porn peddling ways, rather than continue to claim an advocacy role for disabled people but this to is dangerous. Even if they did change their stated aims, they would still command a lot of traffic. Peddling their harmful representations but being able to more clearly deflect criticism from disabled people because, they could more honestly say “This isn’t about you”.

During my time reading posts under #CrippingTheMighty, I saw at least two tweets where individuals either contemplated or attempted suicide as a result of feeling like burdens to their families. In these cases heavily trafficked blogs were not involved. To have a celebrated archive of hugely popular parental self-pity is dangerous. Which is why though I continue to believe that The Mighty can’t be saved, it must still be actively criticized.

That is not to say that parents don’t have a right to feel stressed or want to seek out support. I just want to dispel the lie that framing your child as a tragedy and oversharing their personal information in a very public forum is in any way helpful. Parents who genuinely just want support and a place to vent should look for a less public venue. Otherwise I will just assume that they are nothing more than attention seeking assholes.

The Mighty writer Carly Findlay, describes the climate of the private writers’ Facebook page as one where those who don’t want to hear our arguments just want the situation to blow over. The problem is that it will and probably already has. Tweeting on the hashtag was only strong for about three days. In some ways The Mighty was lucky that shit hit the fan so close to a major holiday. The tweeting tailed off considerably Christmas Eve and is now comprised primarily of people resharing previously shared pieces.

The Mighty chose to ride out the storm, they payed lip service to our concerns but did not really publicly engage with any of them. Saving themselves from any sort of public accountability while giving the impression that they might do something about the issues but making no promises.

The Mighty will continue on as before and little if anything will change there.

I do hope that people will continue to use #CrippingTheMighty as a tool of dissent and hopefully future protests can be more organized so at least the worst content can be removed quickly.

I also hope to keep engaging with the great new connections, I have made with other disabled activists.

#Cripping The Mighty Roundup (share anything I miss in the comments)

Two Ethical Futures for The Mighty by David M. Perry

Run Down of #CrippingTheMighty by Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone

Some Real Talk About The Mighty by s.e. smith

If you Like It You Shoulda Put a Paycheck On It by Autistic Academic

My E-mail to The Mighty by Ultimate Oddball

Website “The Mighty” Faces Intense Criticism From Disabled Adults by Nancy Jobes

The Mighty is Part of a Long Tradition of Inspiration Porn by Blind Yanqui

We Liked It, So We Put a Paycheck On It by Autonomous Press

Open Letter to The Mighty by Un-Boxed Brain

Thoughts on #CrippingTheMighty

I became aware of #CrippingTheMighty yesterday when a friend mentioned me in a tweet.

Now I have been aware of The Mighty for a long time. I have been uncomfortable with it for about the same length of time.

The Mighty is ostensibly a site about disability. Their tagline is,

Real people. Real stories.: We face disability, disease and mental illness together.

The problem with The Mighty is that the “real people” whose “real stories” are being told are predominantly not disabled. They are the stories of parents or care givers. They are stories about disability, far to often told from outside of it. As a result far to many of the stories fall into the trap of inspiration porn or even worse parental self-pity.

They are pretty unapologetic about this, consider this quote attributed to their editor.

Despite selling itself as a site which celebrates the stories of disabled people, it is also a space where we are centred very squarely as the “other”.

That is not to say that they never publish stories by actual disabled people. Most of which appear in stark contrast to the rest of the site as they deviate so sharply from the dominant messages the site puts forward.

Issues arise even in disability lead stories in a couple of ways. First writers are never paid so they are expected to either create content or share content for free.

Secondly, The Mighty has been known to insist on edits that change the tone of the piece or deny the way a writer self-identifies. To the point where some have pulled their permission.

It is not just disabled writers for the site who have issues. Others avoid it entirely or at least heavily critique it.

So back to #CrippingTheMighty which is a conversation about trying to shift the focus of the site. I have to admit to a certain amount of pessimism. I do not see the site editor making the seriously needed systemic changes to keep the site from doing more harm than good.

First you have the nondisabled editor who seems quite happy with the self-pity and inspiration porn that make up the majority of the site.

Secondly, you have to contend with the people who visit the site, the people who are drawn in by the camaraderie of self-pity and feel good inspo-porn.

Just go look at the comment sections on articles that challenge preconceived ideas and bigoted actions. The readers of the Mighty are more than happy to defend prejudice.

The Mighty is a safe space for those ideas. Those who regularly read The Mighty are unlikely to take well to being cut off from their self-pity play group and inspiration porn. While I have little sympathy for them, The Mighty is unlikely to take any action that is going to infuriate or alienate the vast majority of their readership. They don’t want to build a more enlightened reader base, they would rather cultivate the ignorant base they already have.

Let’s face it disabled activists’ positive contact with The Mighty is through those rare disability lead articles. Apart from that, the relationship is and has been adversarial for a long time. The Mighty does not want to listen.

So while, I appreciate being considered a positive voice for the disabled community, I think #CrippingTheMighty serves better as a tool to publicly criticize the site (and dissent is a powerful tool of education), rather than a viable way to change it.

As it currently stands, I would be deeply uncomfortable having my writing featured on the site, surrounded by so much content that makes me cringe.

I think a better option is to continue critiquing The Mighty (to hold it accountable), but rather than banking on changing it, creating an alternative. A Website truly lead by disabled voices which could more accurately show the reality and the diversity from within the disabled community.

Halloween and Disability

So Halloween is two days away and Facebook is full of Halloween costume ideas and pictures of costume parties. My enjoyment of the holiday came to a crashing halt when I came across a photo of a couple who had won a costume contest. They had jointly dressed up as Forrest Gump and Lieutenant Dan. Neither of these people were disabled so both were participating in the harmful activity of cripping up.

It is truly unfortunate that people see disabled characters as fair game, particularly because their representation of those characters cannot be anything but caricature. It is unfortunate that people feel comfortable seeing both physical and intellectual disability as a costume that can be put on for their amusement and the amusement of others.

Halloween is unfortunately a holiday that spends a lot of time reinforcing horrible stereotypes about disability to the point of making the couple dressing up as Forrest and Dan seem almost innocuous. Halloween is often about making disability scary. Consider the popularity of costumes like the mad scientist or the mental patient or Frankenstein’s Monster. All of these are representations of disability and all of them are designed to frighten.

This goes beyond personal costume choices however. Companies profit off of creating and running Haunted Asylum Tours which profit off of and perpetuate ideas of the scary and dangerous person with psychiatric disabilities and other institutionalized individuals (for a more detailed account of why this is problematic read here).

These activities are not harmless fun. The stereotypes they evoke are not discarded and forgotten from November 1st to October 30th. Instead they reinforce the existing negative stereotypes around disability and make the people they are attached to fodder for mockery.

This is not an outcry against Halloween generally but rather a call for people to be more aware of the impact that their costumes and choice of activities might have on actual disabled people.