Archive for November, 2015

Who Let the Dogs Out? Service Animals Run Amok

Posted in Uncategorized on November 19, 2015 by thebluebros

alpaca

I need to vent for a moment about service dogs.

By this point, we’ve all seen service dogs in restaurants, airports, grocery stores, and other public establishments. These dogs often wear vests making it clear to people that this, in fact, is not any regular pet, but a certified animal used to assist an American with a disability. But I have a few problems with these animals.

Abusing the system is too easy. Anyone can register their mangy talentless pet as a service animal, faster than you can say, “Where can my alpaca sit?” ABC News conducted an investigation of the system. Their analysis was partly inspired by a woman who wanted to fly her dog around the country for the holidays but didn’t want to pay the airfare for her dog. So she lied (claimed she had panic attacks), and just this claim allowed her dog to fly next to her on the plane no fewer than six times without paying a dime. In turn, ABC reporters went to USDogRegistry.org and filed an application for a 28 lb. dog named Archie. After paying the online fee, the online organization provided a leash, a vest, a photo ID, and a certificate with Archie’s name and registration number. No doctor’s note was required. And Archie was now able to fly, dine in restaurants, and go shopping at the mall, no questions asked. And why not? With his official leash, vest, and photo ID, he looked 100% legit. They did the same thing for a rabbit named Leo and an African pygmy hedgehog named Snickers. Over the course of this investigation, these animals became very well-traveled.

The list of transgressions is a mile long. The New Yorker published a hilarious article, detailing some of the more egregious examples including a woman who brought her dog Truffles on a US Airways flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. En route to Philly, Truffles defecated in the aisle multiple times, and the plane had to make an emergency landing in Kansas City because people were allegedly becoming sick and a HAZMAT team was required. In an effort to see how far she could take this, the author of the New Yorker article borrowed a friend’s 30-inch snake and successfully established it as an emotional support animal by concocting a story of how she was saved from drowning by a snake when she was a child. Next she got her hands on an alpaca and tried (again successfully) to travel with the alpaca on a public train. Then she took the alpaca to a CVS and later to an art gallery.

A distinction should be made between service animals and emotional support animals. Service animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act; emotional support animals are not. The ADA only allows dogs and miniature horses to serve as service animals. (Not sure how the miniature horse lobby got a voice on this issue, but there you go.) If you see any other animals being passed off as “service animals,” feel free to stop them in their tracks.

The worst part of this situation is that people who genuinely need service dogs are the ones most affected. People with legitimate service animals have complained about the rampant abuse of the system because these “fake” service animals have resulted in business owners questioning the legitimacy of actual service animals. And there have been cases of illegitimate service animals getting into fights with authentic service animals.

Let me get this out of the way: I am not anti-dog, nor am I against animals being used to assist those with disabilities. For example, seeing-eye dogs provide a very specific purpose to people who are visually impaired. These dogs are specially trained and have a set of skills that are the result of months of intense training and discipline. In fact, trained seeing-eye dogs can fetch a price (pardon the pun) of up to $50,000.

Similarly, people who use wheelchairs can use Mobility Dogs to help them open doors, pick up objects, and pull wheelchairs; and people who suffer from seizures sometimes use Medical Alert Dogs to warn them when a seizure may be coming. (This claim about dogs detecting seizures is controversial, but I’m willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.) I have no problem with any of these service animals. These dogs are very different from the service dog next door who is unable to sit on command and shits indoors approximately 37% of the time. But in the eyes of the law, these dogs are equal and allowed equal rights, equal protection, and equal access to public spaces.

Just to be clear, if someone is visually impaired, requires the use of a wheelchair, or is at risk of having seizures, I am the first to accept his/her service dog into my home with open arms and some tasty vittles. That’s not what this post is about. This is about people who pass off their untrained dogs – with no special skills – as service animals.

Another identified problem: If you are a business owner who isn’t thrilled with the idea of an animal being in your store or restaurant, there’s virtually nothing you can do. Service dogs are not required to wear vests or collars identifying them as service animals, and it’s against the law for business owners to ask a person for proof of a disability or proof that the pet is in fact a service dog. And the only time you can ask a person with a service animal to leave your place of business is if the pet presents a health or safety risk or if the pet is “out of control.” The term “out of control” is very subjective, and if a business owner tries to remove a barking dog, he/she could be sued for discrimination under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As a mental health professional, I’m not crazy about the idea of people using service animals for mental health reasons in general. While I agree that having pets is therapeutic and beneficial, service dogs do nothing to treat an underlying condition. For example, if someone relies on a dog to leave the house or engage in social outings, this may help with the initial anxiety but does nothing to address the underlying anxiety problem. I had a veteran with PTSD recently tell me that his service dog (which weighed 4 lbs.) kept him safe by alerting him of approaching danger (e.g. unknown people walking near him on a public sidewalk). In this case, the animal (by barking at everything that moved) was actually providing a disservice to the veteran by reinforcing his maladjusted belief that danger is lurking around every corner and that to stay safe, one must constantly be hypervigilant.

We can’t cure blindness, effectively stop all seizures, or give people in wheelchairs the ability to walk. Thus, service dogs are important and vital for many Americans. However, in the case of PTSD and other mental health disorders, we have a variety of effective treatments and interventions that are available. Attaching a service dog to someone’s hip merely provides a security blanket and robs them of real treatment.

In other countries, it’s very different. Service dogs, for example, must be specially trained, and they are required to demonstrate at least three specific tasks that assist their owners. There is no such requirement in the U.S. You are allowed to train your own animal (which may be limited to your dog rolling over and playing dead).

We need to adopt policies that are similar to ones used in other countries. That is, a service dog must not be used for the sole purpose of providing companionship, and all service dogs must demonstrate actual skills that assist a person with a disability. I would also argue that a person should only be allowed to have a service dog when all other interventions have been tried with unsuccessful results. Again, this is for the reason that a service dog does nothing to treat an underlying condition but merely provides a way of coping with a disability. Imagine if we had the ability to treat someone’s blindness, but we gave them a service dog instead. Tighter regulations are clearly warranted.

– Nathan

How Democrats Always Get the Abortion Question Wrong

Posted in Uncategorized on November 3, 2015 by thebluebros

Every election year we hear Democrats voice their awkward opinions on the issue of abortion. They usually fall back on the tried and true response that the government should not be involved in a woman’s reproductive choices. While this argument appeals to a certain contingency on the left, it comes across as cruel and uncaring for those who consider an unborn child a person.

We haven’t heard much about abortion this election cycle, but the issue was briefly thrown into the spotlight in September when Bernie Sanders spoke at the conservative Liberty University. He was asked specifically about the issue of abortion, and he was given a golden opportunity to speak about the issue to a captive audience of die-hard conservatives. It was a great opportunity, and how did Bernie respond? By saying that it’s a woman’s right to choose. Ugh. The only thing the audience heard was that Bernie Sanders thinks women should have the right to murder their children. Way to win them over Bern.

If I was Bernie Sanders’s campaign manager, here is what I would have told him to say to the students at Liberty University when asked about the issue of abortion:

(Try to imagine Bernie’s voice here)

There is not a person in this room who hates abortion more than me. It fills my heart with great sorrow to think about the number of abortions that we have in this country every day. As a father of four, I understand how precious children are, and I love my children more than words can express. So the tragedy of abortion is not lost on me. When people mistake my pro-choice stance as an indication that I’m in favor of abortion, or that I don’t care about the termination of unwanted pregnancies, it bothers me a great deal because nothing could be further from the truth. If you see my pro-choice stance as hypocritical or inconsistent, please let me explain my position.

If I could wave my hand and stop every abortion from happening, I would do it. But neither I nor anyone else has such power. As long as people have sex for reasons other than procreation, there will be unwanted pregnancies, and as long as there are unwanted pregnancies, there will be abortions. Making abortions illegal will not end all abortions, but it will make them much more dangerous for the mother. Bill Clinton said that abortions should be safe, legal, and rare; and that’s exactly how I feel. Our sisters and daughters should not die as a result of getting an illegal abortion. I’m not in favor of abortion, but I am in favor of women not dying from abortions.

Our goal should not be a ban on abortions as a ban will not end a great many abortions, but will instead create a serious health risk to a great many women. So here’s what I propose we do.

We provide education to young women, and we increase access to contraceptives. If we do this, we can substantially reduce the number of abortions in this country. A study last month coming out of Washington University School of Medicine showed that if women at risk of unwanted pregnancies received the birth control of their choosing at no cost, the national abortion rate would plummet.

Planned Parenthood gets a lot of flack for being an abortion Wal-Mart, but we know that no organization in this country prevents more abortions than Planned Parenthood. If the pro-life movement understood the causal effect that Planned Parenthood’s efforts have had on reducing the abortion rate in this country, they’d be advocating for the construction of a Planned Parenthood on every street corner.

I’m not a Planned Parenthood spokesperson, but I think it’s worth noting that 35% of their funding goes towards providing contraception while only 3% of their funds go toward abortions. So while it’s true that Planned Parenthood does provide abortions, significantly more time, effort, and money is spent on preventing unwanted pregnancies, providing contraceptive services, and educating women on how to avoid scenarios that lead to abortions. This is how we stop abortions in this country, not by signing a piece of paper at the Capitol Building.

You and I have a lot more in common on the issue of abortion than you think. We have the same goal in that we want to see abortions reduced to their lowest possible levels. How we reach that goal is where we come together and work as one. That will require that pro-life advocates move past the idea of a ban and work with both sides of the aisle to take meaningful steps that haven been proven to reduce unwanted pregnancies.

(End Bernie’s voice)

In case anyone is questioning my progressive credentials, let me make them clear. I have been a registered Democrat since the age of 18; I am a proud liberal; and I am pro-choice. That being said, Democrats get the issue of abortion wrong every time. They use euphemistic language like “reproductive rights” to describe the abortion issue, as if abortions are merely an extension of our individual liberties. Continuing with this rationale, Democrats sometimes make the case that anti-abortion legislation is an affront on American women, and it’s a continuation of the conservative agenda to keep women subservient and in the home. In the frenzy of talk about freedom, liberties, misogyny, and big government, there is something inherent to the issue of abortion that Democrats don’t talk about: the loss of life.

Here are some interesting numbers. A survey conducted by the nonpartisan group YouGov.com found that 66% of people believe that fetuses in the womb are people. Only 16% of polled participants did not consider an unborn baby a person. The poll also revealed that 52% of Americans believe that life begins at conception. No matter how you slice it, the majority of Americans place some value on the life of an unborn child. So when Democrats talk about a woman’s right to choose, they’re abandoning any hope of attracting voters for whom abortion is among their most important issues.

There are many undecided voters, moderates, and one-issue voters who struggle with the abortion issue in every election. Aborting fetuses doesn’t sit well with them, and the talk of getting government out of a woman’s uterus rings hollow when clearly Democrats don’t mind letting government intervene in many other facets of our lives (e.g. healthcare, education, regulation of business, etc.). Pro-life voters don’t want to hear about a woman’s choice. They want to hear that Democrats care about the lives of our most vulnerable. Fortunately for Democrats, these two things are not mutually exclusive.

When Democrats are asked about the issue of abortion, they need to respond in a way that’s honest and compassionate. My belief is that you can be all of these things while still maintaining a pro-choice stance. This is an easy victory for Democrats. They can stay consistent on their pro-choice position without moving their line in the sand. They just need to change the way they communicate this issue to the people. I am by no means advocating that Democrats be dishonest or oversell their position of compassion to manipulate the voting public. I am merely suggesting that we add nuance to our position and stop relying on the callous, unpersuasive “woman’s choice” mantra.

Abortion is an issue where the Democrats should be beating the Republicans. While politicians like Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Bobby Jindal throw red meat at their evangelical base by talking about the prospect of overturning Roe v. Wade, they offer nothing in the way of actually stopping abortions in this country. They neglect the role that education and contraceptives play in reducing the problem, and they pretend that a new law will end abortions. Rather than manipulate the Christian voters in America, in the tradition of the Republicans, Democrats should be shouting from the rooftops what they are actually doing to reduce the abortion rate in this country. That’s a winning message that even pro-life voters can’t ignore.

– Nathan