Aslan fetches and carries, opens doors and drawers, pulls laundry out of the washer and dryer, and performs many other vital tasks. One of his most important roles, though, is to identify me as disabled, an identity I hesitated to claim until he was by my side. He is my canine wingman. We’ve been a team since Aslan’s breeder gave me his leash six years ago, among members of Canine Companions for Independence.
With an often-invisible disability, the pressure to be “normal” is enormous. From rolled eyes, sighs, and elbows in the ribs when my slow pace impeded others’ progress through the grocery store to the assumption that I could walk reasonable distances, up and down stairs, carry packages, bend over and pick things up from the ground or sit without harm on stools or counter level chairs, people expected me to do things that I couldn’t every time I stepped out of the relatively safe bubble of my home.
The volume and variety of normal activities that injure me is impossible for most people to comprehend. Before Aslan, I tried to fake “normal” and meet expectations, no matter how much it cost me. “Coming out” as disabled has been a slow process. Taking Aslan’s leash made it easier.
I didn’t believe I deserved to call myself “disabled;” I believed that the term was reserved for people whose problems were more severe. Although I had several autoimmune illnesses, they didn’t explain my injuries, or why my heart rate and rhythm were so unstable, or why I lacked endurance. I was nearly 50, and had given up on ever finding an answer, when an unrelated rheumatologist visit offered a clue.
The rheumatologist told me I had a hereditary disorder of connective tissue, and that acting like a normal person had only hurt me. Visits to two more specialists confirmed the diagnosis as Classical Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (cEDS), a disorder that affects collagen, a protein that the body uses to build tendons, ligaments, muscles, fascia, intestines, blood vessels, nerves and skin. In cEDS, tendons and ligaments break down with normal stress, there is multiple body systems malfunction, and it causes reduced stamina and endurance.
We EDSers tend to appear healthy and strong. That’s all most people see when they look at me — until I step out with my service dog. Acknowledging disability means that I can ask for accommodations when structural and social barriers prevent me from participation. Aslan is a visible sign that makes “asking” easier so I that I can accomplish more than I could when I pretended to be normal.
The shift in identity goes deeper, though. My parents joked that when I was born, the doctor slapped me to get me breathing — and I slapped him right back and told him to knock it off. I was born ready to react and take on the world.
My instinct was to be like the terriers I used to have as pets, who hurled themselves at every obstacle, chased down every ball, dug up every bone, yapping all the while, throwing caution to the wind. I followed that instinct, and it was outwardly successful, at least for awhile, until my weak EDS body fell apart. Then, I had to learn to be less fierce and to accept that I am fragile. I had to learn how to ask for help.
My big, sweet, impeccably trained Aslan approaches life differently than my terriers did. I aspire to be more like him. He waits. He responds with quiet authority instead of reacting with harsh barks. He works enthusiastically, but without undue urgency or stress. He asks for help when he needs it. Aslan accepts the love that people heap on him and returns it tenfold. He appreciates a good treat, a sunny day, a nice run beside my power chair, but waits patiently through the cold, sunless winter for spring to come again. He trusts that things will turn out all right.
DSN supports our members with service dogs or those who are in the process of training one. We offer service dog grants each year. Check out the application here
The opinions expressed here are the authors and not that of DSN or its affiliates.