At eight years old, I remember my dad taking me fishing for the first time. Considering I have a rare neuro-muscular disability that impacts the use of my hands and legs, you may be wondering, “How was she going to fish?” My dad has always been one to find a way to make activities available to me. It has never been a matter of can’t, don’t, won’t, no, or never. Rather, it becomes a question of “Why Not?”
For me, this thought process started at an early age. When I entered this world, my biological parents were not able to take care of me, so I was placed in an institution for people with significant developmental and intellectual disabilities. If your parents couldn’t take care of you, no matter the type or severity of disability, there were no other options.
People back then did not have high expectations for my life, and it wasn’t thought I’d have a family of my own, let alone, go to school, graduate, and eventually, have a career, or live on my own, independently. I don’t tend to follow the norm, or expectations others’ set for me. Instead, I said to myself, “Why Not?” At three years old, I met my parents, who adopted me four years later. Always one to take the initiative, I asked them to adopt me at age five, and it forever changed the course of my life.
My mom enrolled me in school upon the inception of inclusion and IDEA, and I remember there being some hesitation to allow me to enter my home school. The Principal kept trying to encourage my mom to seek out “self-contained” classroom settings at another school in the district. In 1978, my mom stepped back, and said, “She wants to go to school here.” I looked at him and asked “Why can’t I go to school with my friends and neighbors?” He had no answer, and my mom enrolled me that day.
This became the mantra for my life…I wanted to be a teacher, upon graduation from high school and college. Repeatedly, I encountered attitudinal barriers of “That isn’t possible, People will be scared of you or your wheelchair, or She can’t reach the blackboard.” Realizing this can stem from others’ ideas that they can’t imagine doing these things, let alone doing them with a disability, I again asked my professors and my future employer, “Why Not?” I don’t do assignments the traditional way; nor does anyone do skills the exact same way. We all discover what works best for each of us! 🙂
I served as a teacher for twelve years, and everyday of those years was a wonderful learning experience. Service dogs were new and cutting edge at that time. When I mentioned I was applying for my first service dog to the school district, it was shared, “Why do you need that?” My respectful reply, “Why Not?” Service dogs open up new opportunities for people with disabilities…they turn lights on and off, tug open doors, pick up dropped items and alert for help to assist individuals who use wheelchairs. Sparky and Sully, my service dog’s who were in the classroom with me helped me pass out papers, pull down the overhead screen, open and close classroom and school doors, handed me paperclips, pencils, pens, and student materials. These skills allowed me to focus on educating the students, not on expending energy on physical, secondary tasks. As one student aptly put it, “I learned I can do things a different way, and be successful, even if I don’t do it the way everyone else does.”
When I first got Casper, my current service dog, new possibilities entered my life. Deciding to change course after twelve years, I wanted to use my experiences and educate the community as well as individuals with disabilities. When I first began educating the community on service animals, and community inclusion for people with disabilities as my part of my current profession as training coordinator, people would initially inquire, “Does he need to come with you?” And again, I reflected, “Why Not?” To learn about access for service animals, the American with Disabilities Act, and disability sensitivity, what better way for businesses, federal and state agencies, law enforcement entities, and community organizations to understand than to see it with first hand experience?
Watching Casper assist me, observing him laying quietly while I present, and using references that are tangible speak louder and with more emphasis, then simply, just regurgitating the law. Because of these experiences, Casper has always been warmly embraced by our local community, here and statewide. We went to Washington, DC, as part of my job to address these issues with legislators last year. Senators and Representatives all reiterated seeing Casper and I in action emphasized the importance of opportunity, diversity, and access. And, honestly, when I give him some time off, as I did on Saturday, after working forty or more hours a week, to head to the grocery store with my husband, countless store employees stopped us. “Where is Casper?” they happily asked. I kindly responded, “Everyone deserves a little free time!!!” 🙂
When I made the difficult decision to retire Casper, I pondered long and hard, “Am I ready to do this a fifth time?” This time, it was my husband, who reminded me, “Why Not?” You see, I wondered if I had the emotional strength to do it again, after three (four, when you count my husband 🙂 ) amazing partners….how could one woman be so lucky? But my husband was right, (Don’t tell him I said so. 🙂 ) having a service dog empowers me to continue living a quality life; working, volunteering, educating the community and state, and emboldening others to achieve their goals of independent living. I don’t have to rely on another person to live my life, I can choose to do it on my own terms, with a special canine partnership, in my own way, per the love and support of many, rather than being dependent on traditional strategies.
So, to answer the question of “Why Not?” My dad put the bait on the rod for me, and found me a lighter weight rod. This taught me there is more than one way to find success…When you look at life as opportunity, not challenge, anything is truly open for anyone. You can see life as a choice, one in which we can sit back and observe, or, we can participate, think outside of the box, and discover new parts of ourselves and others that we never even imagined possible!! 🙂
Casper truly embodies the “Why Not?” spirit. He is literally my hands and legs, as will be his successor. His drive and endless devotion makes all things, opportunities; to have a career, get ready in the morning and at night, to volunteer, and to demonstrate what is possible through community education. So with Casper’s spirit in mind, we want to bridge the divide. We have a dream of sharing how all of us have an animal that has impacted us. It could be a service dog, whether they be for mobility like Casper, hearing, guide, autism, facility, PTSD, insulin reaction, or seizure alert dogs. Some people may have been a trainer, foster family, or pup sitter with an organization that provides service animals. Others may have had a pet that changed their life.
No matter the role the animal has played in your life, we are asking you to participate in “Wagging Woofie Wednesday’s” with Casper and me. All you have to do is submit a “Woofie” to [email protected] (a picture of the dog, and/or animal with or without you in it, that influenced you or your life. We would love a few sentences about the animal…name, age, how they changed your life?) Casper and I will post them on Wednesday’s. Please share this blog, Facebook post with friends, family, and organizations across the US, and the world. In doing so, we can all come together, and celebrate the wonderful ways animals transform our lives.
If anyone has questions, or wants to leave comments, we welcome you to do so. Let’s start change: “Anything’s Pawsible – Why Not?”