Imagine not being able to go into your favorite store, utilize services for banking or paying bills, or not being able to get treatment from your doctor! As an individual with a disability myself, disability for many years has been believed to be a disadvantage or an ugly word. When in fact, disability means being adaptable; individuals being flexible and able to change as the environment increasingly alters over time. Many people with disabilities experience challenges every day; wanting to access public facilities and services just as the general public does. While we may have laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, IDEA, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation isn’t always enough. People have to collaborate to make change that benefits people with disabilities living in the communities of South Carolina.
One of the rights of access that is guaranteed by the law, but one that is not always upheld is the right to have a service dog in order to be independent in community living. As a service dog partner, I have had difficulties with access to community locations, and been denied participation in activities in the community because I have a service dog. Rather than get upset or hurt, I made the decision to educate and communicate the needs of individuals who utilize service animals to public officials, service providers, businesses, community organizations, police and emergency responders, and the general public, as a whole. But one person’s voice isn’t enough, all of us can come together and make a difference. Many of us did just that on Tuesday, April 26, 2016.
Advocacy Day for Access and Independence took place on the Statehouse grounds in the city of Columbia, South Carolina on Tuesday. People from over 25 organizations, throughout the state of South Carolina, including PAALS, came together to voice their opinions, beliefs, and concerns that individuals with disabilities have access to community resources, public facilities, and public accommodations that serve the community. I had the privilege of co- emceeing the event with my sidekick, Casper.
Throughout this monumental event with 330 people in attendance, we got to hear from and meet lawmakers that included Senator Katrina Shealy, Attorney General Alan Wilson, and Councilman Jim Manning, to name but a few, and other individuals with disabilities who want to see the community be more accessible to all individuals with all types of disabilities who utilize all types of service animals. As I was facilitating introductions of guest speakers, one of the lawmakers said to me, “You have a PAALS dog; and I responded, yes, I do, and without him, employment, access to public restrooms, transportation, opening doors to stores, and living independently would not be possible.” You see, service dogs are not just cuddly beings, they make the difference between people like myself with disabilities opening the door to a business, or waiting outside in the rain, paying the cashier for your bill or not going out to eat, getting up in the dentist’s chair or exam table, or not receiving medical treatment.
Partnerships make a difference! When we as service dog clients, staff of PAALS, volunteers of PAALS, and community supporters of PAALS come together and support access for individuals with disabilities, we are paving the way for independence and education of the public regarding service animals. I am reminded of thoughts from James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” All of us coming together means we want to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities and those who use service dogs across South Carolina.
By participating as well as advocating for the wants, needs, and rights of individuals with disabilities and service dogs, we are all a part of educating our local communities! When our voices are combined, we can unlock the barriers of community living in South Carolina and people with disabilities with service dogs will have access, independence, and equality in the future! Support PAALS and Able South Carolina, who work tirelessly as non-profits to educate the community on service dogs, service animal rights and regulations under the ADA and SC law, the importance of independent living, and most importantly, living a quality, inclusive life in the communities of South Carolina through participation in Midlands Gives on Tuesday, May 3, 2016.
A HUGE thank you to Photographer and Able SC board member, Jim Dukes for taking these amazing photos!