Connecting people with disabilities who are facing day-to-day barriers with those who have overcome them.

Jenny has cerebral palsy, and her hips were dislocated at birth. She is a college graduate, a very proud mother, and says, “the thing that I’m proudest of is that from the time I was 20 years old to the time I was 50 years old, if I wasn’t employed competitively in the workplace, I was working as a volunteer. My resume never had a gap in it.” Now, at 61, she is co-founder of At Your Service Animals, an organization that promotes awareness of service dogs for people with disabilities.

Jenny’s Story

I come out of the traditions and generations before all of the wonderful legislation that has made life more wonderful for disabled people. And, I was raised in the military. My father was an army officer. I grew up visiting the Berlin Wall and doing things that many Americans, whether they have a disability or not, have never done. Those things most definitely shaped my life. I think because of that and because there wasn’t much (when I was a child growing up) for families with disabled children, I learned to be very self-sufficient and very self-reliant - to do as much like everybody else as I possibly could, no matter what the personal cost. I played hopscotch on crutches (we revised the rules), and I was the best jump rope turner in school. I played Four Square and Softball. I did all those things. I am confused nowadays when mothers complain about how their children are being bullied. I’m thinking, well, aren’t you teaching them how not to be?

Favorite Job

To this day, working at the United Cerebral Palsy Association remains my favorite job. One of my tasks was outreach coordination, which meant when someone’s child was diagnosed as having cerebral palsy, I went into their home. My having cerebral palsy was the greatest asset ever because when I drove up in my own car and they found out I was a college graduate - they realized their child could do these things, too. I gave them hope.

Service Animals and the ADA

My friend and I founded At Your Service Animals. Basically, what we do is go around and raise awareness, as best we can, on self-trained service dogs - a dog that you pick up from a shelter and take home. You train that dog yourself to be your service dog. One of the biggest pieces of misinformation that people have is they believe a service dog has to come from some agency. It does not. That’s very expensive. Even if somebody else is paying for it, you know, even if they are giving it to you free, you’re going to have a two- to five-year waiting period. In those two to five years, you could be training a dog and enjoying it. You take a one-year-old dog from a shelter, and you immediately go into obedience training at PetSmart, PetCo, etc. That’s the first thing that a service dog has to be is exquisitely obedience-trained. You enter a class and, you know what, you’re going to illicit the trainer’s attention. They’re going to give you more help than the average Joe Blow who just wants their dog to learn to sit and not jump up on them. Once your dog is obedience trained and has bonded with you, you’re going to take it out and start teaching it, “No, you don’t put your nose in that man’s crotch while we’re waiting here at Wal-Mart. That’s not good service dog manners.”  And, you’re going to apologize profusely - just as, guess what! a trainer from a service dog agency would have to do!  It’s not any different. Then you’re going to teach your dog the individual tasks that you need.

For most of us who are mobility impaired, picking something up off the ground is one of the biggest helps a dog can do. I drop pencils and stuff a million times a day. My Josie Rose is right there beside me; I don’t have to say anything to her. She’s in another room; she hears it; and she comes running because she knows that’s her job. She pulls open cupboard doors for me – that’s pretty much for show because I don’t really need that. Josie’s real jobs: picking things up off the ground; pulling my shoes off and my socks off, and oh, yes! pant legs!; pulling out things that get stuck in the back of the dryer; pulling the laundry basket to the washer; carrying my garbage from the bedroom to the kitchen garbage; and carrying things to the kitchen…a glass or whatever – uh, an empty glass—she can’t do the full one! She has, also, carried a cookie three feet and given it to me. That was hard. We had to reward her with lots of tootsie rolls for that.

I’m not anybody special. I’ve had dogs all my life. I’ve raised cats all my life. I’ve been around animals all my life, but I don’t have any special degrees or anything in animal behavior. I do have my degree in speech communication, drama, and secondary education. Therefore, I am capable of breaking down a task that I want to teach a dog to its smallest parts and working on that; just like I did with my son. You know, if you can raise a child, you can train a dog. One of the biggest fallacies out there is that a service dog must be trained by an agency. The ADA does not say that. The ADA says that to be a service dog, the dog must be trained to do work for the handler. It must do a task that mitigates the disability. That’s all. It’s deliberately done that way so that more people with disabilities will have more access to service dogs. So money, position, and power don’t enter into who can have a service dog. Anybody can have a service dog and anybody can train their service dog. Now, if your dog bites somebody, you better be prepared for the full extent of the law. Along with your right to have a service dog comes responsibilities. You better not be choosing a dog with a terrible disposition. You better choose a dog with a sweet, mild disposition.

What person/organization was the most influential? 

My parents, a physical therapist who was just wonderful, and teachers. They wouldn’t let me get by with anything. They challenged me. My father was determined that my disability was never going to hold me back. He’s the one who put me on horses and bicycles and all the things that normal kids do. Ok, I always knew that I had a physical problem, but my dad always said, “You’ll just work harder.”

Do you have any advice for the newly disabled?

Helen Keller said, “You have one hand to push yourself up with and another hand to reach out with to help someone else. That’s why we have two hands.” It’s only in reaching out and helping other people that we have a good life. If we’re always taking from people—and it’s so easy when you’re disabled— because there’s a certain segment of the population that just wants to give, give, give and if you just take, take, take…and never work to give back, you’ll end up being dissatisfied with your life.

Do you have any “words of wisdom” for family members and/or friends? 

They’re the people who are closest to us and their behavior hurts us more than anyone else’s. We need to have constant dialog. Our needs change just as their needs change. Don’t put us in the strict role of a “disabled person” and we won’t put you in the strict role of “my protector.”

Additional advice?

There are expectations that the world does put on us that sometimes are very onerous. Either we’re not expected to do anything or we’re expected to be like whomever they’ve made the latest tear-jerker movie on who’s been disabled and where they have overcome something. That’s not fair. That’s Hollywood. Expect the same of a person with a disability as you do other people.

Also, when you’re disabled, if you have a natural propensity to be shy, you better work it out. I know deep in myself, I probably could’ve been a shy person. But I learned that if you take an interest in other people, well, they’re going to be interested in you and, in the course of a conversation, you may find several things that you share in common and can use to make a friendship.  Once you’ve formed a friendship and you have some shared experiences, you have a bond.

Questions or Comments:

Questions or comments may be sent to Jenny by e-mailing the Southwest ADA and referencing ADA StoryTeller client # 13-04-001 in the subject line.

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