Tuesdays With Maui

Maui and I pose outside a shop with a sign in the window that says Service Dogs ONLY.
Maui is no ordinary Golden Retriever. She has VIP access to any public location, including restaurants and movie theaters. When she's caught sleeping in class, nobody minds.
Maui and I riding in a taxi.
As my Assistance Dog, Maui's job is to accompany me wherever I go. If I drop an object, she picks it up. If I need a door opened, she handles it. Because of her, I am able to lead a more independent life.
Maui in her geisha Halloween costume.
There are many rules Maui has to follow, and these rules can seem unfair to humans. But to Maui, the job is a game. She is rewarded for "tricks" and is allowed to be with her human all day long!
Maui sticking her head between the vertical blinds to see out our living room sliding glass door.
If there are no health or behavioral problems after the first year, the future service dog is moved to Paws with a Cause headquarters where it is matched with a client on the waiting list.
Maui getting her leash crossed with Lulu's while on a walk.
Maui is gentle and responds well to vocal commands, but she also has a lot of energy. This makes her a perfect match for me because I have limited upper body strength and I lead a very active life.
Maui with her front paws resting on the keys of a painted street piano in Denver.
Taking an adorable Golden Retriever everywhere with me has led to many interesting experiences. By sharing them with you, I hope to spread awareness of Service Dogs and issues affecting people with disabilities.

Gold Star for a Gold(en) Retriever

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The nearest bus stop is located on the shoulder of the main road right outside our apartment complex. There is no sidewalk, so the ramp to board the bus is too steep for me to safely ascend. Alternatively, I have been using the A-Ride, an accessible paratransit program which sends vans equipped with wheelchair lifts to pick up and drop off clients at a scheduled time and place.

Maui waits in a down-stay off leash while I ride the lift, then I call her name and she runs up the stairs across from the driver's seat. Drivers we haven't met before usually offer to hold her leash for me while I get situated. This is a kind and appreciated offer, but Maui is very good at staying put in her down-stay. Many of the drivers have told me how impressed they are with her obedience, and that they had seen other service dogs that are not nearly as well behaved. One dog in particular even seems to have a reputation for sniffing out the drivers' lunches!

So even though Maui has a record for good behavior, last week when she stayed strong in the face of extreme temptation, even I had to say I was impressed.

We were being picked up from downtown Ann Arbor, across from the People's Food Co-Op. There are tables and chairs outside, and several people were enjoying their lunch and soaking up the sunshine. Also, we were right on the street corner, so there was lots of pedestrian traffic from people crossing the intersection.

While riding the lift, facing the van with my back to the street, I heard the unmistakable sounds of an excited dog pulling on its leash: huffing and puffing. High-pitched, frustrated squeals. Toenails scraping the sidewalk. Clearly, someone was walking a very curious dog right past Maui.

Other dogs are Maui's weakness. Worried that she would stand up and start running in circles around the dog and its owner, I hurried to get inside the van and turn around so that I could call her. I wasn't really worried about her taking off into the street—I knew she would run straight to the dog if she decided to stand up. Plus, I had been hanging out with a friend who was still waiting by the curb to see me off, and the driver was standing right next to her, so someone could have stepped in if the situation had turned sour. But I don't like feeling like I'm not in control of the situation, and she is my responsibility. As my dog, I know the best techniques for getting her to behave: what to say, what tone of voice to use, etc. I just hoped the owner had the sense to keep walking, and Maui had the sense to stay put.

By the time I was inside the van, I realized there had been no reason to worry. Maui was still lying down in the same spot, her ears perked and her neck slightly extended, but all legs flat against the ground. She was curious, but she did not look like she was about to go anywhere. When I called her name, she ran straight up the stairs and to my side. I breathed a sigh of relief, and my friend, the driver, and I all commented on what a good girl she was.

Sometimes I try to pinpoint the reason why Maui is so well behaved, even for a service dog. It certainly helps that I'm so strict with her. No one else pets her, I always follow through on commands, and I have no problem scolding her if she's done something wrong, even if it's not really a big deal.

Not to mention, Maui had a fantastic foster family. Having met them, I know she was raised with all the love and dedication necessary for making a fantastic service dog. She learned from a young age that performing tasks and getting affection is fun and exciting.

But it's more than that. Maui is, quite simply, a great dog. She is incredibly smart, extremely cuddly, and she has such a loyal, eager-to-please personality… some things we can't take credit for—it's just in her nature.

I love this dog.

Living Dependently: How the State of Michigan Punishes Me for Having Roommates

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

For four years, I have hired personal assistants to help me with daily living activities and household chores. I typically hire four people at a time to work in shifts, and their wages are provided by the state of Michigan. This program allowed me to live independently while attending college, and currently allows me to live away from my parents and work.

But the state of Michigan penalizes me for having roommates. I am allotted a certain number of hours per task (i.e., cooking, cleaning, bathing, etc.) based on my condition and how much help I require. Sharing a household also affects my eligibility, as my caseworker explained to me over the phone Tuesday afternoon.

"These checks are awfully low," I told her, having just received the first payment for my workers. "If you go by the number of hours they have worked, they are making just under $6.50 an hour."

"Yes, that's because some of your hours for certain tasks were cut now that you have roommates. That's just how the system works. The state assumes that, since you are now living with two other people, you are only doing one third of the cleaning, cooking, and shopping. For instance, when one of your roommates goes grocery shopping, they are going to pick up your groceries, too. And when they cook, they are cooking for everybody."

"Well, that makes sense for cleaning," I protested, "but that's simply not true for cooking and shopping. Our situation is more like college roommates. We are not a family. We are not necessarily shopping and cooking for each other. If I expect one of them to cook dinner for me, then they have to plan on being home at that time, because if they make other plans I can't cook for myself. Since they have to be there, it's more like a job."

"Yeah, well, the state doesn't differentiate. If you're living with two other people, the number of hours you receive for those tasks are automatically decreased."

When I asked her if it would be possible to increase the number of hours I receive for other tasks, she informed me that I am already getting the maximum number.

I understand where the state is coming from. We are broke, and friends and relatives should not be paid for things they would do for themselves anyway. Can't we help each other out every once in a while without expecting payment in return? And it would be difficult for the state to determine what types of relationships exist between members of a shared household. For some roommates, it may be common to cook meals for each other and shop for shared groceries.

But for others, living together is simply a financial decision. The state should not be assuming the roommates of people with disabilities are willing to routinely cook their meals for them and do their shopping. Furthermore, since I do live with friends, my roommates are already helping me with small things that aren't on the schedule. Why should I have to ask them to carve space in their schedules to cook my dinners when I already ask them for other favors? Why is the state forcing me to be dependent on them?

Fortunately, I will be able to cut down my hours without having to drastically change my lifestyle—I just may have to cook simpler meals and prepare food in advance sometimes. However, this is a flawed system, one which could significantly limit the opportunities of people with disabilities to live independently.