Sept 22, 2002
Bob Ray Sanders
Fort Worth Star Telegram
Jodi Lee Ryan of Arlington is accustomed to being stared at when she shows up at public places with her constant companion.
But lately she has been blatantly discriminated against, and that is something she simply can't get used to.
Last Monday she got a call from someone representing a seminar for which she had registered, and the caller had bad news. Ryan was told that she could still come, but her friend would not be welcome.
"The other day when that lady called, I cried all day because it hurt my feelings," she said.
Ryan has multiple sclerosis.
Her companion, Sky, so named for the animal's sky-blue eyes, is a 110-pound albino Great Dane that has been trained to assist her, especially when her disease gets worse. Because the dog also has black spots and a pink nose, it's been described by some as "a Dalmatian on steroids."
Although the dog wears a big leather harness and a bright red backpack to carry Ryan's purse, medications and a copy of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many people only think of service dogs for people who are blind.
Two weeks ago when Ryan stepped into an Arlington mall, she said a security guard rushed up and shouted, "You and that dog, out now!"
"Two bad experiences in two weeks, being turned away, has really floored me," she said, noting that her self-esteem is bad right now "because my MS is in exacerbation."
Sky, who helps Ryan keep her balance when she walks, can sense when the disease is about to act up.
"She was trained to come around me when I'm about to fall," Ryan said. Even though the dog is small for a Great Dane, she said, Sky is strong enough to support Ryan's weight, and the dog usually breaks her fall or pushes her to the nearest wall.
When the MS intensifies, it causes tremors in Ryan's legs and face, and she usually loses the strength in her hands. When it is really bad, she has difficulty speaking.
The dog's size, among other things, is what frightens some people.
But to support MS patients a companion dog must not only be strong, but tall. Ryan explained that German shepherds are too short, and golden retrievers' hips are not strong enough to support the weight of an adult.
Still, many business owners don't want dogs of any kind in their establishments.
Ryan, who helps train Southwest Airlines flight attendants in dealing with service dogs, said she usually has trouble with national chain restaurants that are not sympathetic to her needs. But citing the ADA, she said, "Anywhere my legs can go, the dog can go. That's the law."
Although a big dog, Sky fits comfortably under an airplane seat when Ryan travels.
Ryan and Sky have been together for four years, and they bonded quickly. In addition to helping her keep her balance, and at times helping her to rise from a chair, Sky is trained to fetch Ryan's wireless phone.
If for some reason Ryan were totally incapacitated, the dog could knock the receiver off the hook of a programmed big-button phone, press the buttons and bark until help arrived.
Ryan, who is married and the mother of three children and three stepchildren (all adults), said her husband is relieved that she has Sky to help her be more independent.
With the recent bad experiences, however, she said, "Now I'm afraid to go out."
Ryan and her dog are being discriminated against because she usually has "invisible symptoms" and business owners haven't gotten used to seeing dogs assist people other than the blind.
Well, they'd better get used to it.
More and more dogs are being trained to help people with MS and other disabilities. Right now there's a seven-year waiting list to get a service dog for an MS patient, Ryan said.
If you're open for business, you've got to be open to having a dog or two in the place.
As Ryan said, "It's the law."
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