Recently, while on a date, the subject of service animals came up. My date spoke of a female coworker of theirs who would occasionally bring a service dog to work. They expressed their disbelief about their coworker’s disability – an anxiety disorder – because she “seemed fine” most of the time, and didn’t always bring her service dog to work. “If she can come in some days without her dog, she must not really need it,” they reasoned.
I quickly changed the subject, too nervous to mention my own service dog, who I had left home that evening.
As a person with multiple invisible disabilities (including autism, PTSD, and anxiety), having a service dog has made a huge difference in my life. My service dog helps me get oriented to new spaces and navigate crowds and places with loud noise, and also knows how to respond if I have a flashback, meltdown, or anxiety attack in public. Having my service dog with me can make the difference between being unable to leave my apartment and going out to do daily life activities socialize. Having the companionship and stability of my service dog also affects how much I can get done in a day; a task that may take all my mental energy to accomplish on my own, leaving me unable to do any other tasks the rest of the day, becomes much more manageable with my dog at my side.
There are times when I don’t take my service dog with me. Some days I will wake up feeling well enough to go through my standard routine (work, errands, etc.) by myself. Other times, I know I will have a human companion with me to help me through the day, who can fill a similar role as my dog.
But sometimes, the reason I don’t bring my service dog out with me is that I fear the reactions of others. Because I can “pass” as a non-disabled person, when my service dog accompanies me, it invites insensitive questions about my disability status from strangers. I’ve encountered many individuals who have the misconception that service dogs are only for people with noticeable physical disabilities, like blindness or mobility impairments. And while service dogs specifically for autism are becoming more common, organizations that train these dogs only market these services for autistic children, perpetuating the idea that autistic adults don’t need service dogs.
When faced with questions about my disabilities or the purpose of my service dog, there is always a risk that I will be accused of “faking” my need for a service dog. These accusations alone can be enough to send me into a meltdown on a bad day. It is a real option I have to weigh: do I try to go out on my own, knowing that it will take me a tremendous amount of effort without my service dog, or do I bring my service dog and risk the ignorant comments of strangers making my mental state even worse?
For many years, I internalized the idea that I should try my hardest to not “look disabled”. This idea caused me a great deal of mental anguish and lowered my self-esteem. I felt incompetent for not being able to do the same activities that others seemed to accomplish so easily. Only after I began to embrace my disabled identity was I able to look into options that could improve my quality of life. A service dog was one of these options, and having mine has given me a level of independence I’ve never had before.
I’ll never regret making the decision to get a service dog, but I also know that I will continue to struggle to validate my needs and identity as a disabled person in the face of ignorance surrounding service dogs for invisible disabilities. I can only hope that as I face the world with my dog at my side, the rest of the world begins to understand and accept that service dogs can be part of the lives of all individuals with disabilities, regardless of how that person appears.