I’ve been mulling over this since the news of Delta Airlines new service dog policy broke. Reading people’s comments, organizations responses. Thinking. Saddened. Frustrated. Really.
On Sunday, when getting my husband an ice cream in a shop we’d never before been too, even the person at the counter struck up a conversation with me about it as Tom lay waiting patiently at my feet. So apparently the news has also permeated the non-assistance-dog community as well.
Honestly, I’m kind of shocked it took some airline this long to decide to implement a policy such as this. Though I’m not in the least shocked that their course of action was to impose on the rights of people with disabilities, as opposed to a policy based on behavior and upholding current existing laws. Because no one ever bothers with that. And airlines and their employees have a long standing history of acting with complete disregard to the needs of the actual disabled person in front of them. Breaking wheel chairs, forcing certain seat assignments, arguing with the person with disability about the need for assistance and what kind of assistance required, being talked at, being grabbed, being treated like a child, to name a few. I’ve been on the receiving end of such ‘assistance’ before and it’s infuriating to feel so belittled and like a second class citizen when I’ve paid my airfare same as the next! To be treated as if I don’t know what is best for me or my guide dog. To be treated as if I don’t exist as a customer or human being. To be treated as incompetent. So the approach they took with this new policy, unfortunately doesn’t surprise me in the least.
The last flight I was on, with Tom lying quietly at my feet as is his norm, there was a man across the aisle with a dog. I have no idea if the dog was actually task trained, or emotional support, or simply a pet being passed off. What I do know is the dog’s behavior wasn’t unobtrusive. And I’ve talked about that before. The dog was highly aroused, fixated on Tom and I, trying to escape his handler’s grasp to get to us, unable to respond to his handler’s repeat cues or forcible hold. It was a medium to largish sized dog, so had it gotten away and come at us it especially in such an enclosed space it could have done some damage. My husband was with us and positioned himself in his seat to protect Tom and I should that dog across the aisle get free. And the stewardess intervened in a very professional manner offering the man the choice to move to another seat a few aisles back, or take another flight, with the stipulation that if he moved to another seat and the dog still didn’t settle down before the doors closed, he would be asked to leave the flight. The man moved seats and I assume the dog settled down. Through all of this Tom lay quietly at my feet ignoring the other dog. Unobtrusive as a guide or service dog should be in public spaces.
On previous flights, we’ve been barked at in airports. We’ve been lunged at as we sit waiting for our flight to arrive. We’ve been barked at some more in airports. And some more. By pet dogs in carriers. By airport security dogs with TSA guards. By dogs in vests. We’ve also been hissed at by cats in carriers. And we’ve been ignored by other unobtrusive guide and service dogs. And ignored by other frequent flyer pet dogs in carriers. And I don’t fly that often anymore, maybe once a year at best.
We all know the level of security in airports these days. Why then when these dogs were barking and lunging, did no security or other authority personnel intervene? Why, at that time of the escalated behavior, weren’t they asked to leave or gain better control of their dog? I don’t really care if the dog is a task trained service dog, an emotional support dog, or a pet. If the behavior is inappropriate for safety in a public space with high levels of security and people of varying states of emotional stress (as flying is stressful for many), age, type, and such, why isn’t the policy as blanket as the whole ‘see something, say something?’ policy they are always blaring about on the loud speakers? If the dog is acting in an uncontrolled manner, you will be asked to leave. Why can’t that be the policy?
Why, with that man sitting across the aisle from us with his dog clearly upset, why was he allowed the option of being re-seated? Why was the airline willing to take the risk that in the air with no escape possible that dog would be safe with passengers, complete strangers, sitting inches away? When the dog wasn’t acting in a safe manner with the plane sitting quiet on the tarmac? Why give it a second chance? It’s protocols such as that, that end up in dangerous situations. Like how once we disembarked and made our way to baggage claim, the dog now walking through the airport, continued to bark, lunge and fixate on us and others as we moved past again Tom and I minding our own business. My husband kept a sharp eye out and warned me every time that dog was within sight. Neither of us felt safe with it around. Why was it still allowed to be in the airport? Why did no authority ask the man and his dog to leave? Why?
Why instead is this policy now infringing on the rights of all disabled people who partner with a working service animal? A partnership that is supposed to enhance independence? We all face discrimination at various times, but now we have to deal with yet another airline policy that is in an of itself discrimination. The form itself isn’t even accessible to all. Now there is a 48 hour policy, so what happens if you have an emergency and need to fly out with hours notice? Now curb side check in is essentially no longer permitted. Now we have to show proof of vaccinations that aren’t even legally required! Distemper/parvo vaccine isn’t a legally required vaccination in this country. And many people, myself included, when we do give those vaccines give them ourselves. Because the only vaccination required by law in the USA is rabies, which means it is the only one required to be given by a veterinarian. I keep my own vaccination records for the ones I give my dogs myself. So now, I have to pay more and have the inconvenience of scheduling transportation and such for a veterinarian to give my dog a vaccine?
This policy doesn’t even address the whole concern they say they are trying to deal with. Which is the behavior of dogs in airports. My vet filling out a form, says nothing to the behavior of my guide dog. That man and his dog, could have also had a vet fill out their form. So what? That dog was still a threat. That dog was still allowed to ride unconfined in an enclosed metal can with no escape after showing signs of escalation, fixation, vocalization and its handler being unable to control it. That dog was still allowed to travel on leash only throughout at least 2 airports (departure and arrival), despite showing repeat aggressive behaviors (barking, lunging) and being out of handler control. Why? When the laws that already exist state that dogs not under control of their handlers or showing disruptive behavior will be asked to leave. Why hasn’t that been continuously enforced for years?
Why instead have we taken 2 steps forward and 3 steps back in our rights? We haven’t gone so far back as the days when persons traveling with guide or service animals were required to travel with the dog muzzled. But we’ve definitely taken a large step back. Morris Frank, the first guide dog handler in this country, and his famous german shepherd guide dog, Buddy and those who followed faced significant battles for access. Fighting for the right to chose their mobility aid, and have it on public transportation, restaurants, places of employment, medical facilities and places of education. Fighting to prove that our working animals were not a threat to the general public. Fighting to prove that we as people with disability could steward our assistance animals, are competent. It is thanks to those pioneers that today I have the rights as a person with disability partnered with a guide dog that I do. And now with Delta’s new policy, those rights have taken a hit. 2 steps forward, 3 steps back. It’s beyond frustrating.