April 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 4

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Yes, My Chihuahua Is a Service Dog…
and a Reasonable Accommodation

Dana M. Greene, North Carolina Central University and Visiting Scholar
University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill

dana greene

Dana Greene and Goby

"Yes, My Chihuahua is a Service Dog… and a Reasonable Accommodation" is the title of a talk that I recently gave at the North Central Sociological Association Annual Meeting that was inspired by my personal experience with a chronic illness that my physicians have defined as a medical disability.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I thought that everyone was like me. I thought everyone got sick every three months, had horrible digestive issues, and suffered excruciating and, often, unrelenting pain. It was not until I was in my final years of graduate school that I learned the truth. I have Crohn’s Disease, a chronic illness and invisible disability that is complicated by a severe anaphylactic allergy to latex. Regardless of how sick I felt or what was happening around me, I tried to blend in. I dressed well, acted as though nothing was wrong, and, in essence, when it felt like the illness was winning, I worked harder and pretended that I was "normal." It was not until the day that I was diagnosed formally in June 2000 that my lifelong friend, Kathy, came to the Emergency Room, gave me the first People Magazine that I have ever read cover to cover, and told me to "just stop putting on the brave face," and to "understand and accept that I was sick." I’ll never forget that sage advice from my dear friend, or the reality check that would change my life for the better: my suffering had a name, and once it had a name it could be dealt with and managed medically (there is no cure for Crohn’s Disease). I was elated and terrified at the same time.

Erving Goffman teaches us that we manage our impressions and our interactions so that they are appropriate to the situations in which we find ourselves. Upon my initial diagnosis, my invisible disability could remain invisible. I began my medication regimen and, for the first time in my life, went into remission with my disease. My medications were easily concealable, and thus only those who were close to me needed to know that I was sick. As long as I took my medications three times per day, I was healthy, the gut pain and health problems with which I grew up virtually disappeared, and I began to understand a new definition of "normalcy." But, just as social situations shift and change, so too do definitions of normalcy.

As the years wore on, I began to have symptoms that were reminiscent of my childhood. My definition of normalcy shifted again as I began to take more medications. I learned new ways of coping and began swimming competitively as a means of pain reduction. This time, my "new normal" began to become more visible. Friends began to recognize that I was in pain; my medication regimen grew to many pills four times daily; and as much as I engaged my social capital and tried to hide the fact that I was feeling the effects of the disease, it became impossible. I had to "come out" to my friends, colleagues, and, in some cases, to my students. And for the first time, I had to become familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and learn the ins and outs of reasonable accommodations for my illness.

Under the ADA, a reasonable accommodation is defined as, "any modification or adjustment to a job or work environment that will enable a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions. Reasonable accommodation also includes adjustments to assure that a qualified individual with a disability has rights and privileges in employment equal to those of employees without disabilities" (U.S. Department of Justice). Initially, the reasonable accommodations that I requested were innocuous: a modified work schedule in which I had breaks in between my classes in order to take my medications on time. This worked well for a brief time period until I became even more symptomatic. At this juncture, my "normal was redefined again, first by a hospitalization, and secondly, by having to come to terms with the fact that while the chronic illness is not my master status and thus does not define me, it is part of who I am, as a researcher, a professor, a colleague, a friend, and family member.

My "newest normal" has forced me to be completely out of the closet. I take more pills than I am years old. I have to take more breaks to rest during the day; I have had to come to terms with the fact that I now required a visible accommodation. To keep me safe, I am now using a service dog.

Just as social actors come in all shapes and sizes, so too do service dogs. While the general public is accustomed to seeing service dogs assisting those in wheelchairs, the blind, or others with physical disabilities, service dogs can also provide vital assistance to individuals with chronic illness. My service dog, Goby, is a Chihuahua who has been trained to identify latex well before I come into contact with it (thereby eliminating the possibility of an anaphylactic reaction); to wake me up when my alarm goes off (as my medications make me hyper somnolent); to alert a human in the event that I need medical assistance; and to stay by my side at all times (he is sitting on my shoulder as I write this). Goby is not a pet. He is a working dog.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and as a certified service dog, Goby is permitted to go with me wherever I go, including restaurants, hospitals, airports, hotels, museums, etc. without my being charged additional fees for having him with me, nor can I be asked to demonstrate what he can do. Goby is trained to be docile and quiet, except if I need assistance (in which case, his bark is quite loud and noticeable). In essence, my very visible accommodation for my illness has become my new normal. He goes everywhere with me, not as a reminder of my being ill, but as a beacon of safety.

Over the years, the social construction of my reality has been impacted by both Crohn’s Disease and by a severe latex allergy. Even while my definitions of normalcy have shifted, I refuse to be defined by my medical situation. It is part of who I am, but it is not me. With Goby by my side, I refuse to live life in a bubble, opting instead to take advantage of every opportunity afforded to me and to continue to live life to its fullest. Both Kathy and Goffman were right: the management of impressions is one thing, but living life to the fullest is another. As such, I would like to remind people that yes, my Chihuahua is a service dog and a reasonable accommodation.

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