November 14, 2005.
Laws provide service dogs the same protections as guide dogs for the blind.
For Mocha the service dog, moving to Midland has provided an unforeseen increase in job difficulty.
Managers and employees in some local business establishments have failed to allow access to the hearing dog and her hearing-impaired owner, Sharon Kehoe.
"I just don't like going out anymore half the time because of how much trouble we have going places, said Kehoe, who moved to Midland about four months ago from Duval, Wash. "The worst part is being confronted and even yelled at in front of all these people."
Though Kehoe says the problem is worse here than in Washington, her experience is not uncommon and not specific to Midland, said Sheri Soltes, president and founder of Austin-based Texas Hearing and Service Dogs, an organization that trains assistance dogs.
"Access difficulty still arises, probably because it is so new," Soltes said. "Hearing and service dogs really started in the mid 70s, whereas guide dogs for the blind have been around since right after World War I when there was a huge increase in vision injuries."
Texas law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act both provide protection of rights for people with disabilities and medical needs for a service dog. But public knowledge doesn't always keep pace with public statutes, according to Jorjan Powers, public relations director for the Assistance Dog Institute in California.
"It's ultimately a community education gap," Powers said. "Business owners may be unaware that there are laws to allow a person to bring a service dog into public places. And sometimes there can be confusion about the laws, for instance with a restaurant. They may know of public health laws preventing dogs from being in the restaurant and they fear that they may be closed down if this dog comes in. But they don't know that there is an equal law that does allow these particular dogs access."
Some disabilities are more easily identified, such as blindness or a mobility challenge necessitating a wheelchair. And dogs who assists these disabilities may find easier access.
"It can be especially difficult for deaf people or the hearing impaired," Soltes said. "Their disability is not apparent to somebody who is just looking at them, and they have communication burdens as well, so they can have the hardest time of anybody."
Ely, a golden retriever and Labrador mix has had an easier time in Midland with his job as an assistance dog for 18-year-old Kelsey Horkey, who has spina bifida.
"He goes almost everywhere with me," explained Horkey, who said being asked to leave behind Ely would be like being asked to leave behind her wheelchair.
"And he basically does every little thing you can imagine except type on a computer. When I drop something he picks it up. He can open doors, open the refrigerator. He can close doors. He can turn off and on light switches."
Most of Horkey's doctors are in Dallas and when she travels there for procedures, Ely goes as well, providing both physical and emotional support, according to her mother Carla Horkey.
"Other than one radiologist here in Midland, we haven't had problems, but my daughter is in a wheelchair so I think maybe they can see that she needs an assistant dog."
Powers said the Assistance Dog Institute, like other service animal organizations, encourages their clients to carry a copy of applicable federal and state laws and to be prepared to provide on-the-spot education.
But such an education project is not always successful and does little to mitigate the embarrassment and frustration that can arise when being confronted about a disability, according to Kehoe, who said she has even been surprised by difficulty at the post office, a federal building, and at the local office of the Texas Department of Public Safety, a state law enforcement organization.
Access issues at both locations were eventually resolved, but only after Kehoe was asked to publicly disclose her disability and need for Mocha's accompaniment, something the Horkeys said they have not experienced.
For protection under Texas law, service animals must be trained by an organization that is recognized by rehabilitative agencies, explained Soltes, who helped write the 1995 additions to the statute.
"Texas provides two kind of remedies to access violations, you can sue them in civil court, but it is also a misdemeanor. You can call police and file charges with your local district attorney's office which is a quicker route to enforcement."
However the Americans with Disabilities Act does not make such a training requirement, entitling anyone with a disability and a medically-verified need for a service dog to be accompanied by the animal.
Enforcement under the Americans with Disabilities Act would fall under the purview of the U.S. Department of Justice.
"I'm tired of being asked, 'Excuse me ma'am are you blind?' and having to say, 'No sir, it's none of your business what's wrong with me, this is my service dog,"' explained Kehoe, who said Mocha is a support animal for her post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a hearing dog.
"Mocha is a security companion, she keeps me comfortable and feeling safe. And for my hearing, well she hears for me -- the door, the microwave, the alarm clock and my general surroundings," she said.
"Right now I'm trying to figure out how to work on rattlesnakes with her, because she hasn't been around them before."
Source URL: http://www.mywesttexas.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=15573183&BRD=2288&PAG=461&dept_id=475626&rfi=6.
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