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Letting Go of My Guide Dog – Disability Advocacy At The Airport

Written by: Dave Bahr, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


When I had my guide dog, Katie, we did lots of traveling. Katie was a small black lab who fit nicely under the seat in front of me or in the bulkhead space when we were aboard a plane. We traveled together as a trio - Katie, me, and my late wife Priscilla, who used a power wheelchair to get around - to conferences and the like. But the process of getting to the plane itself wasn't always as straightforward as it could have been. Here's a story about the one time it really just didn't work out from my perspective.

Alt text for photo: Priscilla, Dave, and Katie (a black lab) pose for an engagement picture on the CU Boulder campus, 2014. Priscilla, in a vibrant green sweater and scarf, is seated in her power wheelchair. Dave, in a deep orange button-up and brown slacks, is seated in a patio chair at her side. Both are laughing happily with their arms around each other. Katie, Dave's guide dog, is laying at his feet in her brown leather harness. Picture from Dave’s book, Prave.

I was traveling with Priscilla and Katie to a now-forgotten destination, and we had just gotten into the line for the security check. It's always an adventure with a blind person, a guide dog, and a person in a power wheelchair. Security usually takes about 15 to 20 minutes total. This time, though, there was an extra hitch that I hadn't counted on.

As Katie and I approached the metal detector, the security officer made a demand that I had never heard before. He said, quite clearly, "You're going to have to let the dog leash go and have the dog go behind you." Now, this was something that I'd never done before. Usually, I would put out a hand, walk through the metal detector, and have Katie's leash in my other hand and she would walk a step or so behind me. I always did it this way, telling the person on the other side that her harness and collar and leash were all metal so they would set the thing off. Until this time, when I was ordered to make Katie stay on the other side of the machine.

Needless to say, I was not happy. I thought, “This shouldn’t - couldn’t - be a thing that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers can do legally, right?” Well, it turns out my intuition had been spot on. After the fact, and a quick Google search later, I found that a blog on the TSA site reads as follows:

"At no point of the screening process will you be asked to be separated from your guide dog or be asked to remove your guide dog’s harness or vest."

So, what they did wasn’t allowed - and it was stressful for me. I remember insisting that I could just go through the metal detector as I had many times before, but they argued very loudly that I had to let the leash go before I went through. So, I did it. I told Katie to sit and stay and then dropped the leash. I put both hands out in front of me and walked through the detector. I then turned and called Katie, who walked through, and of course, the thing went off as I knew it would.

I try not to get angry or cause scenes, but this time I was ready for both. I was mad that they had separated me from my dog in the middle of an insanely busy airport where she could be startled or scared and then hurt, while I am left without any of the tools I need to navigate a new environment as someone who is totally blind. So, while Priscilla and her chair were getting the pat-down - which lasted a good 10 or so minutes - and I was getting the usual search, along with Katie and her harness, I asked to speak to their supervisor.

The person complied and guided us over to a bench where I waited. And waited, and waited some more. Finally, someone came over, stating, "I'm the supervisor, I understand you had a problem with your dog going through the checkpoint." I shared with him what had happened, how I felt, and how what his officers did wasn’t acceptable from where I stood. At no point should I have been separated from Katie's leash for both our safety and my autonomy? Thankfully, the supervisor was very understanding and promised that he would talk to the officers in question - and I truly hope he did so.

What can we learn from this? Well, first of all, people in a position of power - TSA folks, in this case - should listen with empathy and understanding, while also ensuring they’re educated on how to respond in all situations. In this circumstance, I was the one with the experience, not the TSA officer, so I’d hoped for a more thoughtful interaction. I've been through the security process before and know what the rights surrounding my guide dog and myself are.

This also teaches us about perspectives. There are probably a few people reading this who are perfectly fine leaving their dog on the other side of the metal detector when traveling. And that's their choice. I, however, was not one of those people, and the rather insistent manner in which I was told to leave the dog was, honestly, the sticking point for me. 99.9% of the time, I would go through with Katie. Yes, this set off the alarm and we did the whole pat-down thing, but it was fine. This was a clear instance where the person in charge simply didn’t know the rules and regulations.

If you can’t tell, I'm still a bit angry about it even today, as I write this. I know there should be better training in place and it’s frustrating that there isn’t. Folks with disabilities should not be treated as afterthoughts in situations of strict regulations. Signage, a card with the regulations printed on it, basically anything that could serve as an education and a reminder for workers in these positions would immensely help the situation. Or, like I mentioned before, listening with respect and empathy to the guide dog user instead of insisting that I leave my dog without reason. That's the one thing I always insist on when doing disability advocacy talks: listen to the person with the disability! They know their body and situation better than anyone else does. It’s yet another case of stop, look, and listen.

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Dave Bahr, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dave Bahr is an author, speaker, and comedian focused on demystifying the public's perception of interacting with people with disabilities. As founder of In-Sightful Living, Dave works as an accessibility consultant, aiding organizations to enhance their systems, environments, events, and cultures to support people with disabilities. Blind from birth, he teaches that having a disability is not a hindrance but an asset. His book, Prave: the Adventures of the Blind and the Brittle, is an Amazon 1 bestseller and has received awards from the Colorado Independent Publishers Association. His coaching program Stop Look and Listen is a new and innovative approach to helping people perceive their strengths through deep focus and concentrated analysis. Dave enjoys listening to and discussing music and taking in baseball games on the radio when not advocating or coaching.



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