Invisible disabilities… Thank you Sault Ste. Marie…

I saw a new doctor this morning and as part of their intake I had to provide a list of my medical conditions. I started listing them but the nurse and I got stuck spelling the first of them, Osteogenesis Imperfecta, so I pulled up my medical ID on my phone. 18 conditions later they then made the ‘mistake’ of asking about my allergies. 13 allergies, including several anaphylaxis, later we were done. Thankfully, I’d actually thought to take a list of my current medications with me so I simply gave them the list rather than listing all 14.

As you can imagine going through that little lot gave me pause to think. Not one of my conditions is visible or readily apparent. My use of a service dog does mean that I’m disabled but other than that clue you would never know that I was invisibly disabled, let alone the extent of it.

Being a member of several service dog groups on Facebook I’m aware of a number of handlers that have access issues because ‘they don’t look disabled’ or ‘they’re too young to be disabled’. I guess at 47 that I don’t fit that last one anymore. However, I certainly fit the first.

Despite this, I’ve never had an access issue. Once, when staying in a hotel in the USA I was asked the two questions allowed by the ADA. But otherwise I’ve never even been asked for the doctor’s letter that I must carry with me in Ontario.

So I just wanted to thank the people in my town of Sault Ste Marie. Thank you for treating me as I wish to be treated. That is, just like everybody else.

Despite my long list of invisible disabilities people treat me as me, even with a service dog. Thank you!

Fake disabilities… Fake service dogs…

I’ve written before about the issue of certification for service dogs in Canada and how discriminatory some provinces are for service dogs and their handlers. However, there is a growing problem across Canada in terms of people faking disabilities in order to take their pet dog out in public.

Actually I doubt that they realise that that’s what they’re doing. However, if you take a pet dog out in public and call it a service dog when you’re not disabled to a point that a service dog mitigates your disability then you are faking a disability.

To have a service dog in Ontario a medical professional must have written you a letter, that you must carry with you, that states that you need a service dog to mitigate your disability. Without that letter a dog, no matter how well behaved, is a fake service dog.

Why is this such an issue? Well it takes about 2 years to fully train a service dog and training continues throughout its working life. Service dogs are trained to cope with a huge variety of situations and scenarios. Throughout all they are required to be calm, quiet and do their job.

Pet dogs are not trained to the levels that a service dog is. Even extremely well trained dogs, such as a police dog, is not expected to behave as calmly as a service dog is.

So when you bring your pet dog out in public and come across a legitimate service dog team the majority of pet dogs will misbehave. They’ll bark, lunge, try to ‘say hello’ to the service dog and in some cases even attack the service dog. I know of several teams whose service dogs have been attacked and the dog had to be retired from service work as a consequence. Leaving that handler isolated and bereft.

Additionally, people take their pet dogs out in public and they are way beyond their comfort level so they misbehave. That puts the next service dog team at risk of being refused public access due to the first dogs behaviour. It’s not right and shouldn’t happen, but it does.

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are an American concept and is needed to allow pets in non pet friendly housing. They do not exist in Canada, aside from in Calgary by-laws for livestock! With that exception either your dog is a full service dog or it’s not.

If it’s not then please realise that when you take your pet dog out in public and call it a service dog that you are really faking a disability.

To be totally honest having a service dog is hard work. It’s not something many people would choose unless they’ve tried everything else first. It’s like having a permanent toddler. Everywhere I go I have to think about my dog’s safety and what tools, such as boots or ear protection, I might need.

Additionally, I have to be ready to deal with the people who try and interact with my dog when it’s working despite a clearly labelled vest which asks people to ignore the dog. I also have to be ready to listen to everybody’s dead dog story. I have no idea why service dog handlers are expected to listen to such stories but I’m not alone in coming across this. Even if people leave us alone they still point and stare. Working a service dog is not for the faint at heart. A 10 minute trip to the store can become 30-45 minutes easily just dealing with other people.

So let me reiterate: Please stop taking out pet dogs and calling them service dogs. You are discriminating against the disabled in doing so and making the life of legitimate service dogs teams much harder. Please just stop!

Dead canaries…

In the days of heavy coal mining canaries were taken down the pit as early indicators of gas leaks. To put it simply, if there was a leak such as carbon monoxide the canaries would die before the miners giving them a warning and time to get out of the pits immediately.

Sometimes I think that we should now have a modern version of canaries in all public places. Not to detect carbon monoxide but rather the clouds of perfume and cologne that some people drench themselves with.

Our sense of smell is much like our other senses. It acclimates to the smells that are regularly around us so that it can concentrate on smelling things that are of danger to us and out of the ordinary.

Unfortunately, this means that for some people they can no longer smell their favourite perfumes/colognes and so they add more and more until they can smell it again. By which point it’s so intense that those of us with sensitivity to smells have real problems.

Sometimes you can talk to those concerned and they’ll agree to back off the scent a little. Most health related buildings are no scent or low scent areas but not everybody follows the mandate.

So I think we need a modern version of a canary in public spaces. Something that would set off an alert if somebody entered the space with excessive scents. I think that a few embarrassing moments like that and the perpetrators may think a little more before using so much scent again.

In reality this isn’t going to happen but perhaps we can just raise awareness that scents can kill people. As an example, I’m allergic to Marijuana so 420 friendly spaces are literally deadly for me.

So please, as you reach for that perfume or cologne think twice about where you will be going that day and think twice about how much you put on. Those of us with scent sensitivities will thank you.

Why I can no longer fly…

A couple of articles in the past week really hit home for me. Since developing RADS I have severely cut back the amount of travel that I do. In the past I have travelled all over the world and perhaps acted somewhat naively about my safety.

I’ve had one really bad experience on a plane where I reacted to an orange being eaten somewhere on the plane but was able to stabilize myself with medication. Thankfully, much of my travel has been international and as citrus fruits are on the list of prohibited foods for import in most cases I’ve been relatively safe. Additionally, airlines rarely give out fresh fruit.

However, my sensitivity is now much higher than it was. Unfortunately I found out yesterday that, at least to oranges, it remains extremely high. I was in a meeting and as it was breaking up a trolley of food & beverages was brought in for a meeting following ours. There was an orange on the trolley. A colleague notified me immediately and I left straight away thinking that I’d avoided a reaction. The orange was not peeled after all. However, on my way back to my car I suffered from some restricted breathing and had an asthma attack. So apparently, even an unpeeled orange is now an issue for me.

What I am interested to know is how long they were waiting outside the door before coming in. Kai, my service dog, started to be unsettled about 10 minutes before the end of the meeting. I put it down to being a long day as he’d been working since 9am and it was now 4pm. I wonder now if he was trying to tell me about the orange.

Anyway, to cut a long story short I don’t feel that it is safe for me to fly anymore as my allergy is so sensitive and airborne. I sit in wonder when I see people like Miss Allergic Reactor talk about how she travels the world extensively with a severe nut allergy.

In contrast, just this week two boys were taken off a flight due to a nut allergy and the airline being unwilling to accommodate them. I can only imagine what they’d say if I asked for accommodation for citrus fruits especially on a morning flight where they’d usually be serving orange juice with breakfast.

Thankfully, I have travelled a great deal so being restricted to places that I can now drive to isn’t such a big deal. I have all of North America to visit and that’s a lot of places!

Dipping a toe in the water…

In 2016 when I developed Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome (RADS) I was very disheartened to hear that the extreme hypersensitivity would likely last at least two years and could be permanent. Here I am, almost 3 years later and I’m finally willing to dip a toe in the water.

What I mean by this is that I’m willing to take a little more risk with my life and step outside what has become a very restricted comfort zone.

My hypersensitivity seems to have calmed down somewhat. However, there’s no really safe way to prove this as deliberately exposing myself to my known allergens seems like a suicidal option to me.

So I’m now playing a game of risk with my life. It started by really wanting to go to a concert (or three). So I bought my girlfriend tickets for us to attend Terri Clarke who was to perform here in Sault Ste Marie in February 2019.

In the interim I bought season tickets to the Sault Theatre Workshop. I attended their Fall and Christmas performances and had a great time. I’ve since attended another of their shows and will see the last of the season in May.

Given that these went well I was much more relaxed about attending the Terri Clarke concert as it was in the Sault Community Theatre Centre with a very limited cash bar. (Bars are an issue for me as they often have sliced, limes, lemons and oranges to garnish drinks).

So given that I’ve been able to successfully attend these events with just mild hives (held in check by the enormous amounts of antihistamines that I take daily) I’m planning to venture further afield in the next couple of months.

There are several events that I will be attending at the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan. To be safe I’ve made sure that my travel insurance is up to date and will be attending each with somebody who knows my medical conditions and understands that I may need to leave part way through the performance if my allergic reaction gets to strong. Kai (service dog) will also be with me which helps a great deal. While he’s not trained to scent for my allergens (as they’re too prevalent at very low levels and he’d be alerting all the time) he is trained to react to any changes in my breathing and to alert and lead me away from the source. Thankfully, he can pick up on breathing changes a lot faster than I can. I just have to trust his instincts which have so far been 100% spot on.

So for anybody else with RADS there is light at the end of the tunnel. It might yet prove to be an oncoming train but so far, dipping a toe in the water with all appropriate precautions and plans for dealing with any issues that arise life, for me, is opening up a little once more.

I’ve even booked a campsite for midweek in May to start off my camping season. I’m hopeful that the snow on the ground now may have finally left by then! It’s been a winter of a lot of snow! If that trip goes well I’ll plan others all with my little Boler and dogs.

Toxic people no longer welcome here…

For the sake of my mental health I have cut out certain people from my life over the past two years. It hasn’t been easy and at times it’s been the hardest thing that I have ever done. However, it is worth it. The decreased stress in my life from no longer having to actively deal with their issues and problems is beyond measure. If you’re not sure what I’m taking about Chelsea Jackson explains well what it means to have, and cut out, a toxic person in your life in her blog “Why it’s OK to cut toxic family members from your life”

So for anybody struggling with this issue let me reassure you that it gets easier with time and is extremely worth it in the end!

To be the best person you can be, means that you must look after yourself first and foremost. If you’re constantly engaging with a toxic person you can never be your best you as they are constanty dragging you down. Stand up for yourself and you will become the better mother, daughter, sister, wife, that you want to be.

A service dog at work in the classroom

Unfortunately, we often hear in the press of schools refusing to allow service dogs in the classroom to work with their child partners. Either the school believes that they can provide the services that the service dog does, they’re concerned as to whether the child can fully handle the dog (including its potty breaks), or they simply don’t want a dog in the classroom.

In my case, the situation is a little different. I’m a Professor at Algoma University and my service dog accompanies me everywhere that I go, including my classroom. It takes a lot of time to train a service dog to handle a classroom situation. I often teach three hour classes. That’s a long time for a dog to hold a down stay. However, Kai (my service dog) does that on a weekly basis.

When I first started taking my service dog to class I was probably as nervous about how the students would handle the situation as much as how my dog would do. I shouldn’t have worried. My students are outstanding. They totally ignore Kai, even though many of them would love to pet him.

For his part, he curls up behind the lectern and as long as I stay within his sight he stays there for the full class unless he needs to alert me. His alerts are subtle and often not even noticed by the students. Sometimes I move out of his sight without thinking and he’ll come up to me and sit or lie down next to me until I move back near the lectern once more. Then he’ll return to his spot and wait. My classroom and my office are the only times that he’s off leash. The rest of the time I wear a cross-body leash that has him attached to me but leaves my hands free.

The only time that students even mention him after the first couple of weeks of classes is when he has his winter or summer boots on to protect his feet. I will admit that he does look cute in his boots though it’s like having a toddler watching to make sure that he always has four on and hasn’t managed to take one off. He’s good with them though as long as I get them on well he leaves them alone.

Kai is trained as a hearing dog primarily, then for mobility and mental health. Unfortunately, it wasn’t appropriate to train him as an allergy alert dog as my main allergen, citrus, is so prevalent in society and a dog’s nose so sensitive that he would be constantly alerting. Having said that, Kai has trained himself to respond to my having an allergic reaction far more quickly than I even notice that I’m having one. So, I’ve learned to listen to him and his actions and consequently saved myself from several anaphylactic reactions by being able to remove myself from the allergen quickly enough.

My colleagues are so used to my having Kai with me that if I’m ever alone, the first question is always ‘Where’s Kai?’. I’m not alone often but he does have to be clipped every six weeks to keep him looking good. Kai attends meetings with me and has a bed in my office where he can relax comfortably while I work.

Even though he’s a poodle, which are considered hypoallergenic, the University has accommodated people who are allergic to him as well as accommodating my need to have him with me. I can’t thank our Human Resources department enough for all the work they have done in this regard.

One day, we’ll probably come across another service dog team in the workplace when a student brings their service dog to class. It hasn’t happened so far but as the use of service dogs becomes more prevalent I’m sure that day isn’t long off.

For today though, I’m thankful that my employer accommodates my needs without any great debate and that I have never had to fight for accommodation in this area like so many students have.