Leading The Way To Diversity in New Mexico

Casper and I at a historic church.

Leadership is as unique to each individual as each service dog team. Casper and I had the opportunity to travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico last week as part of the National Leadership Cultural and Linguistic Competency Program offered by Georgetown University. Selected as one of thirty participants, from all over the world, I have been taking intensive classes, writing papers, and completing a leadership project. This transformative experience has been one of professional and personal growth; taking me on a journey to self-advocate, advocate, and culminating in collaborative leader.

Casper and me at a tepee.

You see, unknowingly, I have always pondered my leadership style. Growing up with a developmental as well as a physical disability, frequently , my “voice” was not even taken into consideration as people in the community thought I needed taken care of, or they knew what was best for me. Often times, when you have a disability, society views you as helpless, cute, not very smart, or unable to make decisions for yourself or your life.  It is a stigma that can perpetuate either false ideals of “Brave, Courageous” people with disabilities, or inferior beings incapable of inclusion into community life.  Battling against these stereotypes much of my teens, twenties, and even my early thirties, I took control of my narrative, as not being the one who needed help, but the individual who could challenge the status quo, and advocate for myself and others with disabilities having equal opportunities as well as access.

Casper and I at the New Mexico Railroad.

This advocacy role influenced my leadership role with Casper and my two other previous service dogs. When you spend much of your time having to convince people that you are indeed, capable, and your service dog is a means of access, allowing you the opportunity to work, travel in the community, and participate in everyday life, you find yourself constantly telling and selling an idea rather than just living the typical life your peers do.  I realized last week, and through this course, I want my partner, Casper, and whoever his successor may be, and me to do more than just explain why equality is important. I want to lead collaboratively, so all people can invest in making change and opportunities available to everyone!  I embarked on a path shrouded with many hidden fears and unknowns. Going on this trip, in the back of my mind, I knew it was Casper’s and my last business trip by plane together.  Lurking behind the happiness was the knowledge that our working relationship is coming ever sooner to a close. Before we left for the airport, I whispered in his ear, “This is our last hurrah, buddy; you always do me proud.”

Casper on the airplane to Santa Fe.

Casper on the airplane to Santa Fe.

The trooper that he is, Casper went through airport security, with nary a pause. TSA examined and patted us both down throughly. Prancing down the jetway, Casper calmly walked with Bryan and me as I was taken in the aisle chair to my seat. He laid under the seat in front of us on our flight to Dallas-Fort Worth.  Upon arrival, we made our way through the tram to our terminal, to our next flight to Santa Fe. At the terminal, Casper and I went to  the indoor dog relief area; he did business and we boarded our flight where he relaxed at our feet in the bulkhead seats.

Casper in the airport dog relief area.

Casper in the airport dog relief area.

Once we deplaned in Santa Fe, we had to board an inaccessible shuttle van. Casper patiently waited while Bryan lifted me in the van in a sit-stay, then did a jump into the van.  Tired from the flight, he still rode politely on the floor. We got to the hotel, took a rest, and then, headed out for some sightseeing, as this was the only free day.  I rented a scooter in Santa Fe, so Bryan attached a caribeaner and off we went. It was a bit of an adjustment for him.  He catches on fast, and we set off to see the sights. At the end of the day, Casper slept soundly as he snored next to me on the floor.

The conference lasted four days, 12 hour days filled with extensive learning and activities. During this time, Casper was well-behaved, but Bryan would provide breaks for him. He’s coming up on eight years old in 8 weeks, and while still the diligent worker, he sleeps heavier during the day, snores more, and gets stiff joints laying on a floor for more than a couple hours with no time to move. I’ve watched this progress slowly, and they are subtle reminders the long hours I can work, he is slowly needing to cease doing so.  Everyone loved Casper, even participants with allergies. People respected the “Please Do Not Pet My Service Dog sign on his cape.” And, we met wonderful leaders from Australia, various Native American tribes, and from cities and countries around the globe. I learned I am more than just an advocate, I can be a co-creater for change and facilitate other people finding their voice.

Commissioner Aaron Bishop and me.

Commissioner Aaron Bishop and me.

Working together to achieve a common goal is the true embodiment of  leadership.  On the last night of the program, we graduated. The keynote graduation speaker was Aaron Bishop, Commissioner for the Obama Administration on Developmental Disability and Intellectual Disability Programs. He left us with a powerful message, “Each one of us has the power to make a difference, use your talents, skills, and your voice to help others find theirs.”  In a year where we have seen children killed, people slaughtered for their gender, sexuality, and beliefs, all of us can work to go from being a world where we are destructive to constructive. Everyone that supports PAALS and these wonderful service dogs, if you value the independence service dogs provide to individuals with disabilities, then eradicate barriers of access for people with service dogs by speaking up, and add your voice to the collective conversation.  When we join together, we truly lead by example!

As I write this, I am looking at Casper; he opens doors, and paves the way for true dialogue, as does every PAALS Service Dog.  If all of us are as open to learning as these dogs, imagine what we could accomplish…  Casper, you have changed my life, and truly, have helped me grow as a person and a leader; I will do you proud now, and collaborate to make more opportunities available for people with disabilities and service dogs!IMG_0416