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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But Wasn’t it Nice of Them?: How Praising the Helpers Can Lead to Less Aid

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Image Description: A black computer illustration of a graduation cap outlined in white.

But wasn’t it nice of them? Shouldn’t people who do things like this be rewarded? These are the questions I am often asked when I critique inspiration porn. Particularly around stories that heap praise on nondisabled people for their assistance of disabled people. The answers to these questions and their accompanying justifications are more complicated than the yes or no answers that the questions imply.

This university graduation ceremony season, the international media has siezed on a story about an American mother who was given an honourary MBA after she attended all of the classes with her son as academic support.

Why would anyone complain about this story? Wasn’t it nice of her to do this? Yes and no.

It is, of course, nice to help people who need assistance but as David Perry points out “Inspiration porn buries analysis of ableist societal structures under a mountain of awwwwwwww.” It is important to consider this story in context. There are other questions people should be asking but aren’t like,

Should she have had to do this?

Why were there no supports provided by the university?

What happens to disabled students who don’t have access to a parent who can take them to all of their classes?

How did having a parent ever present in the university impact the disabled student’s ability to socialize?

Does championing this mother so widely and publicly let the university off the hook from having to figure out how to accommodate disabled students in the future?

So, yes, the mother performed a selfless act for her son. She did it without pay and without the expectation of reward. However, the widespread celebration of her conceals not only the achievement of her son (who was the one to actually complete an MBA after all). It also reinforces the idea that disabled people’s access to things like education should not be the responsibility of society or the institutions themselves but rather on the availability of selfless volunteers.

The selfless volunteers are far too often mothers or other female relatives. The work they do is unpaid and generally considered to genuinely be their responsibility. Not only does this maintain a major system of unpaid labour. It also limits access to opportunities to those few people who have access to it.

It does not create or contribute to a more equal society. In fact, it actively works against it. So, yes it was nice that she attended every class with her son to take notes and otherwise assist him but she shouldn’t have had to.

Some of the justifications I saw around this boiled down to the idea that this mother would take better notes than anyone else because she’s personally invested her child’s success.

I call bullshit on that though. You know who else cares about success? The other students in that class. Many universities use a classmate volunteer system–often with a reward system of tuition credits or the potential to win free tuition (the latter being more common and still less fair)–where classmates share their notes either by taking them by hand and written on carbonless copy paper (how I got my notes through most of my undergraduate degree) or taken on the computer and emailed anonymously to the disabled student. While that system still unfortunately often depends on potentially unpaid labour, it comes from people who are already going to class in the first place and doesn’t require anyone to do much extra work or give up their time. It simply needs to be improved to ensure that note takers are getting something for their effort not just the potential of something.

I had great success with peer note takers. It’s not a flawless system but a disabled student can absolutely succeed using peer note-takers.

Additionally, if professional note takers are used, they have the incentive to do well because if they don’t they can be fired.

A mother is not by default the best or even most preferable option because really who wants their mother following them to class and participating in all their social interactions?

Twitter has also gifted us with many reactions to this story and common theme is this

This idea, that this story is what we should aspire to. This kind of selflessness. Which would be great if it meant a societal change to create more accessibility rather than a statement of support for self-sacrifice in order to access education. These sentiments are also predicated on the idea that this behaviour is or more accurately was normal. There is a false nostalgia here because access is definitely better (though not sufficient) now. There is no golden point in history where disabled people were universally or even widely ferried to school by selfless volunteers.

So, should this mother be rewarded for her actions? I actually think not. I think she either deserved to be paid–I would be open to the idea of her being given the option to pursue a real MBA (not just an honourary one) alongside her son–or external supports should have been provided. What she did deserves a salary, not a reward. Rewarding this kind of action only reinforces the idea that disabled people should be dependent on charity rather than given the right of access regardless of the ability of find or provide a volunteer.

Helping disabled people needs to stop being framed as an extraordinary act because it leads people to think that accessibility is and should be extraordinary, rather than the norm.

 

 

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