Veterans, advocates want to get the word out on dogs

Service animals do lifesaving work and can go where their owners go

awebb@idahostatesman.comApril 29, 2013 

  • WHAT'S THE LAW?

    From the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division:

    Æ Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, privately owned businesses that serve the public - restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls, sports facilities - must allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed.

    Æ The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for him or herself.

    Æ Some, but not all, service animals wear special collars and harnesses. Some, but not all, are licensed or certified and have identification papers.

    Æ If you are not certain that an animal is a service animal, you may ask the person who has the animal if it is a service animal required because of a disability. However, an individual who is going to a restaurant or theater is not likely to be carrying documentation of his or her medical condition or disability. Therefore, such documentation generally may not be required as a condition for providing service to an individual accompanied by a service animal.

    Æ Although a number of states have programs to certify service animals, you may not insist on proof of state certification before permitting the service animal to accompany the person with a disability.

    Æ An individual with a service animal may not be segregated from other customers.

    Questions? Call the U.S. Department of Justice's toll-free ADA information line at 800-514-0301 or 800-514-0383 (TDD).

Daniel Sperry enlisted in the Army the year he graduated from high school. His service in the Persian Gulf wars, Desert Shield and Desert Storm, left him with joint pain and headaches so sudden and severe they sometimes make him black out.

"It's the worst pain you can ever imagine," he said.

He's gotten good at sensing when a headache is about to hit.

"I've trained myself to fall down straight, not on my head," said Sperry, who stands 6-foot-4.

Having the support of his service dog on his left side and his cane on his right gives him an extra moment to plan his falls, he said.

If Dan falls when he's alone, Awescar (pronounced Oscar) goes to get Dan's wife, Angie, for help.

Awescar, a large, white labradoodle, is trained to stand stock still so that Dan can use him as a brace to stand up again.

Dan's condition means he can't work, but getting Awescar three years ago - thanks to the Warriors Promise Foundation and a donation from the community fund at Idaho Power, where Angie works - has helped him be out in the world again, he said.

"Before getting Awescar, I was becoming a recluse," said Dan.

Despite the bright blue vest with white lettering that identifies Awescar as more than a pet, and despite state and federal laws that allow the presence of the service dog in stores, restaurants and other businesses, the Sperrys have faced hassles from local shop owners who don't know the law.

They've had some bad encounters in the last few months.

One was in a deli in February when the manager asked them to leave after insisting Awescar was a pet. They stepped out onto the sidewalk and Angie called the police to make a report. Officers arrived. The whole thing was so stressful, Dan collapsed. He ended up in the hospital.

After looking up the law, police returned and ticketed the deli with a misdemeanor.

The owner of a gun store asked Dan to leave when he saw Awescar, even as Dan tried to explain the law.

The Sperrys had a similar encounter at a buffet restaurant. The servers said they were afraid of the dog and that other customers might be allergic to Awescar. They asked the Sperrys to leave, but eventually agreed to seat them - in a corner far from the other diners. They asked to see documents for Awescar, which is illegal. The Sperrys left without finishing their meal.

"I had never had the experience of being discriminated against, but now I know what it's like," said Angie.

She went home that night and printed out a new business card for herself: "Angie Sperry, disabled veteran advocate."

She set up a meeting the next day with the restaurant manger to explain the legal rights of veterans with service animals.

INFORMING THE PUBLIC

Angie and Dan have joined with other veterans and the Idaho Veterans Network to get the word out.

Marnie Bernard, a member of the network and a longtime veterans advocate, expects the issue to grow.

"There are more veterans returning now, getting service animals. There will be more of these encounters as veterans are out in public more," she said.

Discrimination against service animals is widespread, said Tim Livingood, CEO of the National Service Animal Registry in Colorado. "We actually hear from disabled people routinely with these issues, many vets and nonvets alike," he said.

In addition to educating people about the law, groups like Livingood's, the Idaho Veterans Network and families like the Sperrys also want to broaden the public's notion of what a service dog looks like.

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS

Most people are familiar with seeing-eye dogs or muscular labradors pulling wheelchairs. They're not as familiar with a big, fluffy dog like Awescar.

Livingood can relate. His own service animal is a 10-pound toy fox terrier seizure-alert dog.

"People look at him, and at me. I look completely healthy. They think I'm pulling their leg when I say my dog is a service animal," said Livingood.

He gets frequent calls from veterans who are angry after being turned away from businesses. They ask for advice.

"I've had to educate so many people in my own town," he said.

He carries cards printed with the laws regarding service animals. He gives the cards to business owners when he has a problem.

"Once people with disabilities learn to do this, it doesn't mean they won't have confrontations. But it does mean they'll get through them," said Livingood.

The Sperrys say they'll continue to speak out.

"It's 1 percent about me and 99 percent about making sure this doesn't happen to the next veteran," said Dan Sperry. "People don't learn the law and we're the ones who get affected."

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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