BADD 2011: Please Don’t Send Me This Video

[Note: I wanted to write this post for last year’s BADD, but I couldn’t finish it in time. (Instead, here is my 2010 BADD post.) What a painful irony that I should finally be tackling this topic, while I’m facing the question of whether I will have to wash out Barnum, my service-dog-in-training (SDiT).

The graphic for BADD. Along the top, in yellow letters on a dark green background, it says, "Blogging Against Disablism. Below that is a multicolored square comprised of twenty smaller squares with one stick figure in each, mostly standing, some wheelchair symbols or with canes.

BADD 2011!

Welcome to my International Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011 post! I love writing, and reading, the BADD posts, and I know you will, too!

Every year, on May 1, bloggers from around the world post about disablism, or as it’s usually called in the US, ableism. Dis/ableism is the oppression of people with disabilities (PWDs). Ableism is so omnipresent, omnippressive, vast, and insidious, it’s almost impossible to explain to people who don’t live it. So, please, read the other BADD posts and learn!

Now, on to my topic!

I wanted the full title to be: “Dear Well-Intentioned Person, Please Stop Sending Me This Video,” but that was too long.

I also noodled with a more sarcastic title — “Wipeout! The Inspirational Washout Video” — but given what I’m going through with Barnum, even I can’t find humor in this topic.

The Onslaught of Well-Wishers

It all started a year-and-a-half ago, shortly after Gadget died.  I told friends and acquaintances (on Facebook, on my brand-new blog, in my online chronic illness communities) that I planned to get a puppy to raise as my third service dog (SD).

Following that, for months, many many people sent me the link to a youtube video called “Inspirational Video: Turning Disappointment into Joy: SURFice Dog Ricochet.” Essentially, this video glorifies a program-trained SDiT washing out. There’s more to it, but that’s the main storyline.

Those who sent it to me clearly had no idea how problematic the video is, itself is — how ableist — and therefore offensive to me as a PWD. But even worse was how inappropriate it was to send this video about a SDiT washing out to me, a PWD about to embark on training a SDiT puppy.

The first time I watched it, I was crying by the end, and not in an “inspired” or “joyful” or “special” way, but in a wretched, hurt, sad, frightened, disbelieving way.

People kept sending it to me. I thought it would never end.

Who sent it to me? All sorts of people, with “dog people” being, by far, the most common. There with two notable exceptions; these people did not send it to me:

  1. Assistance dog partners. All of the dog people who sent it to me were companion dog (pet) people, not SD people.
  2. disability rights (DR) activists. While many of the people who sent it to me do have disabilities — in all cases, chronic illness — none of these folks identify, as far as I know, as members of the DR community.

The type of comment I got when someone sent me the video was, “I saw this, and I thought of you!” Or, “I know this will bring a smile to your face.” My jaw would drop, my stomach would turn over, and a lump would form in my throat. I didn’t reply, because if I did, it would have been the text equivalent of either sobbing or screaming obscenities.

I didn’t want to do that because I knew they meant well. I was too addled by grief to try to attempt any sort of educational effort as a response. So, I just stayed silent, and I felt very alone, with all these people trying to comfort me contributing to my sense of isolation. That was perhaps the worst part. I truly believe that everyone who posted this to me did so because they thought it would make me happy.

How can so many well-intentioned people be so painfully misguided?

Well, that’s one of the most common forms ableism takes, actually — causing harm to PWDs with the best of intentions, often “for our own good.” In the name of “our own good,” PWDs have been (and still are) forcibly sterilized or institutionalized, subjected to constant and oftentimes humiliating scrutiny to “prove” we are disabled and therefore worthy of services and equipment, denied access/accommodations and medical care and equipment, and on and on. Obviously, sending me an  upsetting link is not equivalent to putting a young disabled person in a nursing home instead of providing them the tools to live independently, but they both involve a lack of insight into what is most needed and wanted, a failure of imagination, at the least.

The portrayal of PWDs in all forms of media reflects these attitudes of paternalism, which is essentially nondisabled superiority with a soft-focus lens. Every day, you can find blogs, newspaper articles, TV shows, and movies making use of these most common ableist tropes:

  • PWD overcomes tremendous obstacles to do truly amazing thing (Inspiring! Courageous!), AKA the supercrip trope, e.g., person with severe physical disability scales humongous mountain, person with chronic illness hosts wildly popular TV show.
  • PWD is amazingly inspiring (and also pathetic) because s/he does mundane activities most people do every day, AKA the posterchild trope, e.g., man with intellectual disability works at his job! Blind woman rides a horse!
  • PWD as embodiment of a morality tale (“There but for the grace of God go I”) of either complete goodness and purity and innocence, AKA the Tiny Tim trope, or evil (“twisted” or “crippled” personality by their disability), AKA the Captain Ahab/Captain Hook trope.
  • Nondisabled person/charity/institution speaks about and “on behalf of” PWDs, e.g., the parents of a disabled person are interviewed, but not the PWD himself; the social worker, priest, charity, or other members of an organization “serving people with disabilities” are lauded for their “good works,” keeping PWDs in the role of client/charity case, and therefore disempowered — the passive recipient. This is where a lot of the damage is done “for our own good.”
  • The cure trope (often coupled with the trope above), where a charity is featured that “serves” PWDs, usually as a fundraising/publicity effort. Those who do most of the talking are the nondisabled staff, but often one PWD is used as an inspirational centerpiece. The needs and rights of people living with that disability now are ignored completely or relegated to a low priority. The pinnacle of success of the cure trope is usually a wheelchair user who stands up or walks.

In most of these representations, the main role of the PWD is to be viewed, gawked at, stared at, presented, examined. The PWD is presented for entertainment value (whether that be “inspiration” or pity or revulsion), not as an actor/doer, but as a subject.

These ideas don’t just stay in books or on the screen, of course; they live in people’s minds. They are evident by the way people stare at me or point at me or talk about me as if I’m not aware of their comments.

They come out of the mouths (or are typed by the fingers) of the many people who have told me I am “brave,” “courageous,” “inspiring,” and other disability-stereotype buzzwords, just for living my life, as well as all the people who have told me I should be trying harder to cure my disabilities, or that I am disabled because I’m on the wrong spiritual path, or applaud me for “Keeping your sense of humor” (because automatically my personality would change when I became disabled?) or ask me, tremulously, how I have managed to “go on.” (Because it’s the only option, other than suicide?)

While concepts of inspiration, courage, etc., may seem to be complimentary and beneficent, they are actually extremely damaging because they “otherize” PWDs. Tucked into that package of amazement and “admiration” is the message, “There must be something intrinsically different about you that caused you to become disabled/is the result of your disability, and therefore, since I am ordinary (not an inspiration for just existing), I am normal and will not become disabled. You are scary and different; I can distance myself from my fear of disability by perceiving you as sub/superhuman.”

Do I think everyone who says these things to me is consciously and intentionally trying to be oppressive? Absolutely not. I think most probably have internalized these fears and negative ideas about disability without awareness; nonetheless, even while they are saying what they believe to be complimentary (or at least, insightful or helpful), these beliefs and feelings are entwined in their message. Please keep these tropes in mind when you watch the video!

The people who say these things are, in other words, well-intentioned, just as — one assumes — the makers of this video are, and the hundreds of thousands of people who wrote gushing, soppy responses to it. I can’t help but think of one of my dad’s favorite expressions: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Since there is no dialogue, just a song with occasional titles/captions over the images, I’m not providing a captioned version.

Read the transcript/description of the video here (including lyrics to the song).

View the video below:

Things that Make You Go “Hmm…”

Having just watched the video over and over to transcribe the text, images, and song lyrics (which I hadn’t paid much attention to previously, as I’m really not a music-oriented person), was not only extremely unpleasant, but revealing. There is so much here to dismantle in this five-minute video, from a disability studies perspective (and also from an assistance-dog [AD] training perspective), that I could write a small book on it, but I don’t have the time, energy, or emotional stamina for that, and you have other blogs to read.

Therefore, I’ll just briefly raise some questions you might wish to consider. Several of these questions cannot be answered without knowing more details about the dog and trainer than you can learn from a five-minute fundraising video, but they are interesting to ponder. Feel free to discuss them in the comments section!

  • What do you think of Ricochet’s body language when she is surfing? The video says, “She was a different dog when she surfed with Patrick, totally joyful and 100% committed to her new direction.” Does Ricki look “totally joyful” to you? Does she look like she’s enjoying herself as much as she does when performing service skills or chasing birds? Is that tension and posture just the result of concentrating and balancing, or does it speak to her emotional state? (I really don’t know. I’m not a behaviorist or expert in reading body language, but to me, the only time she actually looks joyous in the water, is when she is off the surf board and running to her trainer.)
  • Why does Ricochet learn to surf as a puppy if the bird-chasing problem only became apparent when she was an adult? Was surfing a body-awareness exercise all the puppies went through, or was Ricki being groomed for stardom? (Again, I honestly don’t know.)
  • Was Ricki’s bird-chasing habit really reason enough to wash her out? Given how happy and skilled she seems to be at doing service work, and given that the only evidence presented is one shot of her running across a huge expanse of unfenced beach, might it be possible that if she were on a leash or in a fenced area (as is usually required by SD programs) this problem could be managed, much the same way that guide dog schools have to manage graduates who want to chase squirrels?
  • Were any of the program’s clients (the disabled people waiting for dogs, which for almost all programs is years of waiting) consulted as to whether they could handle a dog with a lot of prey drive? Doesn’t the decision by the (apparently nondisabled) trainer that Ricki’s prey drive would be “a risk to a person with a disability” sound a lot like, “keeping this dog for myself for their own good” as opposed to including PWD in the decision? Personally, Ricki’s the kind of problem I’d welcome (especially since I’ve already had three squirrel-chasing dogs and a current bird-obsessed dog)!
  • Given that Ricki has now raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for various causes as a staff member of this AD organization, will videos like this inspire other AD programs to train star dogs to perform publicity stunts as a fundraising gimmick?
  • The video’s message is that the trainer washed Ricki out of the program so she could just “be,” so that Ricki would be happy and chase birds. In what way does surfing resemble chasing birds? Given how people-oriented this golden is — the two times she looks happiest as an adult in the video are greeting Patrick and reuniting with her trainer — why is surfing a more desirable career for her than partnering with a disabled person? How is she just “being” as a working fundraising-trick dog any more than as a working service dog? Why is surfing with a PWD to provide balance (or surfing for the cameras and in contests) suitable work for this dog, while retrieving items and opening cupboards wasn’t? If the trainer wanted Ricki to truly “follow her bliss,” why didn’t she rehome her with a hunter, so Ricki could be a gun dog, and chase birds as her job?
  • Do you think the narrator’s “inspirational” lesson about how, when she let Ricochet just “be,” the dog “flourished,” and the narrator realized, “She’s perfect just the way she is!” Is intended to extend to Ivison? Or is the take-home lesson the opposite — that while the dog is perfect just the way she is, the PWD, Ivison, has to struggle to become nondisabled in order to achieve his potential?
  • How do fundraising considerations, and a history of paternalism, affect decision-making about dog placement in programs run by nondisabled people?

Enough questions to make you think. On to my main focus — the two themes I started with:

  1. What it was like for me, personally, to watch this prodigy puppy wash out while I was struggling to raise a very non-prodigious puppy for myself, and
  2. The most blatant of the disability tropes that surround the representation of Patrick Ivison in this video.

No, My Worst Nightmare Does Not Bring a Smile to My Face

If you had charted my feelings when I first watched this video, here’s what it would have shown. First, I was interested. “Ooh, something about training and service dogs. Sounds good.”

Then, I felt excited, thrilled, happy — watching Ricochet as a young puppy looking like she is having the time of her life; when she is training, her body language is full of happiness and enthusiasm. The trainer uses positive methods. So far, this is legitimately inspirational for those of us training SDs about how well it can go. “Wow,” I thought, “I wonder if my puppy will be as smart and motivated as that! My first time starting ‘from scratch’ — with a puppy instead of an adult! Look at the possibilities!”

So much hope, and so quickly dashed: “What’s this? She’s not graduating? Just because she chases birds off-leash? WTF?”

That’s when the disbelief sets in: “No! This magnificently smart, eager, talented, raised-from-day-one puppy washes out? What the hell chance do I have? This can’t be happening! That dog on the screen is the epitome of a SD!”

Then, with the surfing comes confusion: “She does not look happy on that surf board. And why was she being trained to surf as a puppy if the surfing came in when she was pulled from the program? Why is surfing the answer?”

When Ivison entered the picture, I regained a little bit of hope. Maybe the two surfers — human and canine — would pair up. Maybe Ricochet would be placed with him and be a service dog after all — a SD who assists with surfing, as well as other tasks — a win-win for everyone! My optimism turned sour at the media spectacle, and the realization that Ricki and Ivison’s pairing was a fundraising stunt.

By the time the “physical therapy” session closed at the end, I was in shock. I felt disgusted. I felt scared.

Why did this video rattle me so?

It is the lurking fear of most PWDs training our own assistance dogs that, after years of intense physical, mental, and emotional work — time, money, and unbelievable emotional investment — the dog will not be fit for duty. The reasons a dog can wash out are almost endless: a health condition, a temperament problem, or some of the personality traits I’ve been struggling with in my own SDiT.

Not that I or any other partner-trainer I know spends all our time fretting about this. We get on with the work, but it also informs almost every decision we make, because we are trying so hard not just to train the perfect SD, but also to prevent training a washout.

I am, after all, training my third SD, and this is the first time I am seriously considering that I might be facing a washout. When I was a student and teacher of self-defense, we had a saying: Feel the fear, and do it anyway. That is what it is to owner-train an AD. We take on this enormous project upon which so much rides, knowing it might all fall down, and we do it anyway. Many of us do it time after time, even after washouts. But it takes a serious toll.

I’ve recently come to realize how little people who are not in my situation understand what’s at stake for me — even close friends and family. A couple of days ago I told one of my PCAs that I might be washing out Barnum. As everyone does, her first question was if I was going to keep Barnum. I told her that was my intention.

“Well,” she said, laughing with relief, “that’s the most important thing.”

I just turned away. What was I going to say? “You’ve worked for me five years, become like a member of my family, helped raise and train Barnum, and you’ve just told me you have no understanding of what his role is supposed to be? This huge part of my life, functioning, and identity isn’t visible to you?”

Here is the best analogy I can come up with for training your own SD. Imagine spending over two years, devoting most of your time and energy every day to creating the most complex piece of assistive technology you can imagine. It’s a combination multi-function piece of assistive technology, spouse, and medical treatment.

This technology will combine medical benefits, providing pain relief, fatigue reduction, protection from chemical exposures and exertion, anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medication without side-effects. It also will act as a communication device when you’re speech impaired and for distances when you are immobile; it is mobility equipment, powering your manual chair when your powerchair is unavailable, acting as a PCA to help you transfer or steady yourself. It has a panic button, alerting others to your need for help or providing you the phone. It acts as an extension of your arms and legs, allowing you to make a meal or leave the house or leave your bed or carry on a conversation you otherwise couldn’t do.

Along with all this, it is a combination best friend, spouse, roommate, and child, so you are also trying to foster the perfect relationship. This “project” is worth tens of thousands of dollars in labor and materials.

You work on this combination ultimate medicine, environmental control unit, and marriage for years, knowing that at any time, something unforeseen that you have no control over — an attack by another dog, a genetic mutation, an illness, a behavioral problem, or just a combination of subtle factors that add up to a unit that malfunctions on occasion — will cause the whole project to implode.

Then you’ll have to decide, do you start over again? Do you give up? Do you make do with a technology that can only provide some of what you need and may prevent you from getting the whole package from another model?

Meanwhile, everyone who knows you — often people who only have heard about this project you’re working on — are invested in the outcome, even when they try not to be, because they know it’s so important to you, and they have developed an affinity for your project and have their own feelings about it. They judge your abilities to create this magic machine. If you say you think the machine might be malfunctioning, they tell you your judgement is impaired because you liked the previous model so much.

So, not only do you have the pressure of all that you need and want in increased safety, freedom, independence, functionality, and reduced pain and fatigue riding on your success, you have this intense emotional bond that you need to consider breaking, and your own uncertainties and deeply conflicted feelings about your abilities to be objective in evaluating the performance of this combination medical equipment and life-partner. You have people eager to tell you that this or that potential major flaw in the machinery is really not as important as you say. You have other people who are ready to say, “I told you so,” and point out how, as a disabled person, you really have no business trying to create your own magic machine, you should leave it up to the (nondisabled) professionals who have been building these machines for years and know what’s best for you better than you could ever do. (After all, you’re disabled! You can’t possibly be competent and objective about your own needs!)

All of this is built-in to the process of training a SDiT for me, and — except for some of the particulars about type of service work and impact on functionality — for all partner-trainers. This comes with the territory every time I train a SD. But, some unique issues were facing me when this video started arriving in my inbox so often.

The timing was disastrous. The video went up two days before Gadget died and went viral in short order. Thus, people started sending it to me when I was utterly wrecked by grief, longing, despair, and frustration at suddenly losing so much of my functionality. Seeing Ricochet, this fantastic SD, being withheld from a PWD on a waiting list was very painful.

However, even worse was when I was still getting the video after Barnum was a few months old. Of course, I chose not to watch the video most of the times it was sent to me, but since many people didn’t name the link before they sent it, I didn’t know what it was until I’d clicked on it and it had opened.

There I was, struggling with a pup who was the same age or older than the puppy prodigy on-screen. While I watch Ricochet turn on lights, open doors, and unzip sweatshirts, I’m all-too-aware that my SDiT is still peeing and pooping in the house, showing stress and confusion when asked to “down” and “sit,” and jumping on and mouthing people’s shoes or hands or pants. Seeing Ricki washed out was a very, very bitter and scary pill to swallow.

The “Charitable Cause”

This is delicate ground to tread, and I do not want to contribute to the oppression of another PWD. Before I discuss the second half of the video, I want to make clear that I know nothing about Patrick Ivison, his wants, needs, priorities in life, or how much influence he had in the creation of the video.

I’m discussing this video as a piece of influential media (it has been viewed over three million times), not Ivison or his decisions, which are his own business. Whether, or how much, a PWD seeks out treatments or cures is highly variable and can depend on many factors, including the type and severity of the disability, the person’s resources for accessing treatment, the age of the PWD, the likelihood of success, and many other issues. It is always the individuals’ right to seek their own path and to speak for themselves (or to choose not to speak) about why they have chosen it.

Now, on to the second reason why I hated receiving links to this video over and over. The first reason is that it brought up grief and a real sense of isolation from people who I thought knew and understood me.

The second reason is more straightforward: The video in itself is a smorgasbord of ableist media tropes. It’s a manipulative schlockfest that manages to combine the posterchild, supercrip, cure, charity, and Tiny Tim tropes, all in five minutes!

Since the first word of the title is “Inspirational,” it’s no surprise that the video pulls out all the stops to tug at the heartstrings using all the old standbys — the sappy music, the adorable puppy, the kid with a disability reaching for a cure with the help of various charities, etc. In fact, the blurb under the video on youtube starts with “Kleenex Alert!!”

Given all this, I find it hard to believe what the videomaker told me when I asked her if there was a transcript of the video available.

She said no, because she had just made the video for a few friends. It totally surprised her that it went viral!

Really? She owns a dog whose job it is to raise money through publicity events, and she created a video (with music, titles, news clips, etc.) about that dog, and she titled it, “Inspirational Video,” and included all sorts of web links — just for her friends to enjoy?

The biggest problem is how the video handles its main human subject — Patrick Ivison. First of all, we’re introduced to Ivison as one of Ricki’s “charitable causes,” which strips away a certain amount of his personhood: “Her first fundraiser is for a 15 year old quadriplegic surfer, Patrick Ivison.”

Also note that his disability status comes before his name (although at least his occupation — “surfer” — and age are given equal weight). Ivison, who could have been featured as a promising young athlete, is instead an object of charity and spectacle — and unlike Ricochet, who at least has her (speculated upon) desires and feelings taken into account, we learn nothing of what Ivison actually wants.

We can infer — and I certainly hope — that his interest in walking again is the reason that the money was raised for “Helping Patrick Walk” as opposed to providing him with products or services that would improve his life in the here and now. We can only infer that the organization somehow learned of his desire to try this experimental, out-of-pocket physical therapy which costs $100 per hour and approached him. Not that he approached this organization for a service dog and they offered, instead (or in addition) for him to try to walk.

Regardless of what was going on for Ivison, the fact that Ricki’s handler chose “helping a paralyzed person walk” as her first fundraiser is nauseatingly typical of what is seen as a worthy disability “cause.” The public seems to be the most interested in providing financial assistance to PWDs if it’s to try to make them into nondisabled people, especially the holy grail of posterchild fundraising — for a wheelchair user to walk again. (And after the video went viral, several thousand more dollars were raised.)

How about having Ricki surf to raise taxes and awareness to pay for safe and accessible housing for low-income people with disabilities? Or to allow the Justice Department to sue the millions of public venues or providers that are not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act? Or for food, assistive equipment, health insurance, and improvements to disability benefits programs, which would provide a better quality of life for all disabled people? Not so popular as a glimpse of a blond surfer dude taking a few steps while flashbulbs pop, apparently.

I can’t believe I didn’t actually see this coming as the culmination of the Kleenex alert. Because the narrator is someone who works with PWDs, and because she uses person-first language about PWDs in her narration, I had actually hoped that Ricki was raising money for something that would increase Ivison’s autonomy, joy, or independence in the here and now — something that was not focused entirely on his disability but on him as a whole person. I had thought (silly me), that it might have to do with his surfing — like a new surfboard or wet suit or surfing camp (if such a thing exists) or something. Maybe, as I mentioned before, that Ricki and he find they were a great match as a SD team, in the water and out. But no.

Another familiar problem is that Ivison is never quoted, never speaks for himself in any way (except insofar as his surfing shows us his surfing talents), but is talked about by the (apparently) nondisabled dog trainer. He is part of the spectacle of Ricki’s flashy fundraising and “human interest story” on numerous TV news programs. There’s no way to know from the video if he was interviewed and got to speak for himself on any of those segments; if he did, there was no sign of it in the video.

I guess I also should have paid more attention to the background music, as the song repeatedly refers to “standing tall” and “learning to walk. . . .”

The fundraising “allows amazing things to happen!”

Cue images of Ivison’s PT, which is unlike any therapy session I’ve ever seen before. Dozens of people line either side of the carpet on which Ivison and his therapist labor. Cordoned off by maroon velvet ropes like those for a red-carpet affair, onlookers cheer, clap, and take pictures while Ivison concentrates and sweats.

Ivison is obviously working his ass off — and props to him, I hope his therapy is successful and brings him joy — but I wonder how he felt about his PT being a media circus? If he could have gotten the money for PT without having to be a star attraction, would have chosen that?

Regardless — again, judging this just as a piece of disability representation — the world certainly needs no more encouragement to stare and gawk at PWDs, to take our picture for something that nondisabled people take for granted (PT), and to make our everyday lives into inspirational media events for nondisabled people to weep over, as they pity/adulate us.

Please, Think Before You Link

I’ve run out of time, and you’ve probably run out of patience.

I’d like to make two requests. One is that when you see something about assistance dogs, consider the context and the difference between what an owner-trainer, like me, goes through, versus what a nondisabled trainer who is working for a program experiences. They are not relying on the dogs they are training to be their assistants! It is hard enough to be a SD partner and then lose the support and assistance of your dog. To lack that support while using every bit of time and energy you have on training a dog you hope will one day return the investment is even harder. The losses surrounding a partner-trained dog washing out are massive; there is nothing comparable for a nondisabled trainer.

An essential element to the disparity is also that programs are businesses. They get money through fundraising, and many of them charge disabled clients for their dogs, as well. The trainers are getting paid for their work. In most cases, the trainer is not personally investing all their own time and money and energy into one dog — they go to work, work with several dogs, and go home. In most programs, although this is not the case with the handler/trainer in the video, puppy raisers are used, so the trainers don’t even have to work with puppies who are having toileting accidents, chewing up the house, and other difficult puppy behaviors. They receive a dog who has good manners, basic obedience, and has been well socialized. Then they evaluate if the dog seems suitable for further training before proceeding. This culling process allows them to work with the cream of the crop, avoiding the messiness of the puppy years.

When someone sends me this video, it slams a door on whatever connection or understanding I thought we had. I realize they comprehend almost nothing of what I’m going through in dedicating my life for at least two years to raising and training my SDiT, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Most people seem to think training my own SD is a fun little hobby — a way to keep me occupied with dogs, because I’m a dog lover. Even my family didn’t “get” how essential my SDs were to me until — ten years after I’d trained my first SD — my mother spent a week with me when I was extremely ill and saw the number of things my (second) SD made possible for me, all day long, every day.

The second request is that the next time you read an article or see something on TV or in the movies or on the web about a person with a disability, ask yourself if they are being portrayed and treated like any other person — like a nondisabled person? Does the storyline (whether fiction or nonfiction) follow one of the common ableist tropes I outlined above? If so, please don’t forward it on to all your friends with a note about how moving it is and how it made you cry. Instead, write to the creator of the piece and ask them to go to the BADD 2011 page and educate themselves about disability oppression.

Thank you for reading this very long post!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, the spirit of Jersey, and Barnum (SDiT? and Bird-Watcher!)

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23 Responses to “BADD 2011: Please Don’t Send Me This Video”


  1. 1 Carol Birdwell May 1, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    I first viewed that video a month after Lily passed, early January of this year. Like you, I was inspired at the very beginning, wow, training from ‘birth’, no small task! Of course I smiled watching Ricochet grow, eagerly opening the frig, cabinets, turning off/on lights, how cool is this? I was thinking more of how it was educating “others” to what goes into creating a SD. I agree with everything you said Sharon, but I still have one question, what possessed the trainer to put Ricochet on a small surf board in a kiddie pool? I mean, what else did she do before thinking she could ‘surf?’ Towards the end of the video it says how Ricochet ‘rushes’ over to help Patrick who falls off his board, it looked like a dog swimming frantically to get out of the ocean to me, but hey, that’s just what I saw. I’m glad you made this post, I was wondering if I was the only one who didn’t forward you this thinking it was an ‘uplifting’ video.

  2. 2 Laura May 1, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    Wow Sharon, I get it. I watched the video before i read your blog and immediately noticed at least some of the things you were talking about, particularly those things such as Ricki’s body language when the trainer said how “happy” she was. You are right and I acknowledge that I haven’t got a clue about needing the support of an SD or others in order to live my life. I take many things for granted and yes I am a total sap and get sucked in to the media protrayels you discuss.
    I can honestly say though that because I grew up with a number of people with various disabilities and later worked with others, I have a great deal of respect for the difficulties that people with a variety of physical and psychological problems, have to deal with everyday. The investment of time, emotion, energy into training an SD is immense and I have learned much from your writing and I thank you for it. I’ve even borrowed some of your knowledge to help Yuki (our deaf pittie)become an adult dog that I can communicate with effectively and who knows that I will always be there for her.
    Thanks again and I will keep in mind what I am watching and reading and if necessary I will write to the person and point out the problems in their presentations.

  3. 3 Laura May 1, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    Oops, can’t spell ‘portrayal’

  4. 4 eileenanddogs May 1, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    Thank you thank you Sharon for your analysis of this video. Finally someone has done it. The only time I have forwarded it was in horror/dislike.

    To focus on the dog aspect for a moment: in all the surfing clips, Ricochet’s body language is markedly different from how it is when she does anything else. Her tail is down. Her mouth is tight. Certainly she is concentrating on doing a difficult task, but I believe from what I see that the behavior is unnatural and unpleasant for her.

    The thing that bothers me the very most from the dog’s standpoint is the lie in the premise in the video. It would not bother me as much if the trainer had said something like, “Hey, Ricochet doesn’t enjoy this surfing business very much, but there are lots of other things in the environment that are rewarding to her and really she is not on the board for that long compared to the other stuff. We reinforce it highly and really appreciate how cooperative she is.” But NOOOO. They have to PRETEND that this is somehow her choice and “who she is” and all that blather.

    And if they will go to such trouble to ignore the truth about the dog, who knows how far they will go ignoring the reality about people’s lives?

    Eileen

  5. 5 Sharon Wachsler May 2, 2011 at 12:58 am

    Carol, thank you for commenting!

    Yeah, I thought I was the only one, too! My partner has heard me rant about it many times, as we both had it sent to us again and again.

    I, too, wondered about Rickie being trained to surf as a puppy. It seems suspicious, but I’m willing to believe that maybe it was part of a confidence-building/body-awareness effort — not intended to lead to actual surfing. I don’t know.

    I didn’t see Ricki swimming frantically to get out of the water. I must have missed that. I saw them dunk a couple of times, but they always cut what happened next, so I don’t know if Ricki actually did provide any assistance (whether she wanted to or not). As I wrote, the only times I saw her happy around Ivison were when she greeted him on the sand, and when she was running away from him and to her trainer.

  6. 6 Sharon Wachsler May 2, 2011 at 1:03 am

    Laura, I was so moved by your comment. Thank you so much. A comment like this makes all the hard work more than worthwhile!

    I have been wanting to write this post for over a year, and this video seemed to be sooooooo popular that I was afraid people would treat my criticism of it as sacrilege.

    I also didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the people who sent it to me. I wanted to explain WHY the video was problematic and have people understand.

    So, it feels so good to read that you understand and see it in a different light now! You always show such integrity, Laura, and bravery — it is not easy to admit mistakes. Thank you.

  7. 7 Sharon Wachsler May 2, 2011 at 1:29 am

    Eileen,

    Your reply, too, surprised (and I admit, delighted) me!

    Yes, to me, Ricki’s body language looks quite unhappy whenever she’s on a surf board. I hadn’t noticed her mouth. I had noticed her tail, her head, and the general hunched-tension of her body.

    To me, she does not look at all like she is connected to Patrick. Often, she is looking away from him, to the side; to me, it looks like stress, like she’s looking for an escape, but she could be looking at her handler, I don’t know.

    I did write to list owners to ask if I could post a question about Ricki’s body language to get responses from actual behaviorists and really savvy dog trainers, but I was told that Ricki’s trainer had already received a lot of flak for this video and was on the list, herself. I was surprised — I always forget how small the dog training world is. But I was also surprised to hear that there’d been a flap over it, as I only ever got, “Isn’t this wonderful!” emails/links.

    I wholeheartedly agree with what you say about being honest about what’s really going on for Ricki — but that doesn’t sell tickets, does it? People buy the lie, readily. I also have to wonder if the trainer, herself, believes the dog enjoys surfing and all the other stuff. I just wonder, honestly, if she just loved the dog too much to give up, so she came up with this instead. There’s no crime in that. But, in terms of the dog behavior aspect of things, putting out a video saying the dog is joyous when she looks pretty uncomfortable, etc., compounds the problem of the Cesar Milan effect — it misleads the public about how to read a dog, which can cause so much harm.

  8. 8 brilliantmindbrokenbody May 2, 2011 at 2:18 am

    My brain and my hands aren’t in any shape to reply to this post tonight, but I wanted to let you know I had read it. I’ll write a real response when things are behaving a bit better!

    ~Kali

  9. 9 starrlife May 2, 2011 at 6:51 am

    What a great job on this post. I admit I am quite ignorant about all of the initials (SD/PWD) but I don’t think those are essential to understand what you are saying so well! People can be so clueless- that video is not pleasant even for me and I have nothing to do with Service dogs (ooh just got the SD).
    I am interested in this idea of not acknowledging the courage, strengths of someone who has what we refer to as “disability” and seeing that as when given as “otherness”- I think that sometimes we all are “other”, stand apart from the herd and that should be acknowledged not denied or viewed as less than. We certainly do not want to be all of the same do we? I am both appreciative and cautious about those kinds of attitudes with my daughter – both at the same time. The context of who and how it is given means a lot to me and how I accept it.
    Different is beautiful, we are all different in our own way and the main idea to me is not being treated or viewed as bad or inferior because if it. Now I’m rambling so I apologize! 🙂
    Thanks for a thought provoking post and a great explanation! And thanks for stopping by my place!

  10. 10 Selene May 2, 2011 at 8:16 am

    Love this post, and your analysis is so insightful, thanks!

  11. 11 Ashley May 2, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Bravo! I’m in the midst of a flare so typing is hard but I did want to let you know how much I appreciate this post. It needed to be said

  12. 12 Cait May 3, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    I have a dog (my German Spitz, Lizzie) who I’ve started teaching ‘surf’ as a trick- we don’t live near the ocean, just the lake, and Lizzie is a Crazy Agility Spitz who finds unstable footing really reinforcing in general, so I don’t anticipate it being hard. Her body language is TOTALLY different than Ricki’s- she’s got her head up, tail up, and she’s bouncy. Ricki looks stressed to me.

  13. 13 Sharon Wachsler May 4, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Kali,
    I look fwd to it. But no hurry. I read your blog a couple days ago about how crappy you’re feeling. Take your time. Also, I wanted you to know, I so much appreciated your email. I just haven’t had a chance to reply.

  14. 15 brilliantmindbrokenbody May 4, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Ricochet almost looks like a dog being punished in some of those shots. The first shot, she’s hunched and her tail is right at her back legs…that doesn’t look like a happy dog to me.

    I kind of got curious and googled Patrick Ivison, and he and his mother have a website, helppatrickwalk.com. Not real surprising on the name, eh?

    Anyhow, I noticed on his site that he has a service dog, Kona. While poking around, I looked at fundraising stuff too and it says that the surf thing with Ricochet funded his PT…and the service dog. I’m not sure what to make of that. If I’ve lined up the dates correctly, he started working with Kona before the surfing with Ricochet, not that dates necessarily tell you anything about fundraising and whatnot.

    Right, all of that was kind of a side note. I’m kind of astonished that a dog as clever and skilled and happy to do SD work as Ricochet washed out. I think my SD school would have placed her as a home companion, if her prey drive was that strong – they don’t have public access rights like SDs, but they do SD work in the home. Hudson’s littermate, Robinson, is a home companion who didn’t make it as a full service dog due to fear of new places. They also place dogs as what they call ‘resident companions’, who live in places like nursing homes and residential training facilities.

    I found it a little bit of a relief that Ricochet was a washout from a program rather than an owner-train. The latter seems like a much more heartwrenching issue, particularly in light of your discussion of it.

    As far as the disability-related stuff, boy did that video make me uncomfortable. It looks like Ivison has been in PT for at least 5 1/2 years at the same place, which would put him starting there pretty young. I wonder, with people who have been groomed from such a young age to be a disability inspiration story, when (and whether) they start objecting to being treated as such, and then how they deal with all of the past. I know some of the Jerry’s Orphans folks like Laura Hershey did start out being part of that debacle. In the whole page on Ivison’s ‘progress’, only 2 of the comments appear to be authored by him: one about driving, and one about going to a disability-related camp. That right there is pretty disappointing to me. I’d rather see comments by the PWD than by his mother, and more comments about living than about PT. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve done more than my share of PT (though nowhere near what he’s done), so I would understand if he was enthused by getting more function, but we don’t get to see much of him feeling that way, we mostly see his mother feeling that way.

    I’m sure I had more to write, but I’ve lost my points. Gah. Damn brainfog.

    ~Kali

  15. 16 Sharon Wachsler May 5, 2011 at 12:04 am

    Hi Sarrlife, thanks for commenting!

    Sorry the initials threw you. I do try to spell out the whole word before I use initials for something, but this is a very long post, so I can see how you could lose track. PWD = Person/people with disabilities, and SD, as you figured, is for service dog. (AD is for assistance dog.)

    I’m not sure I understand what you are saying here: “I am interested in this idea of not acknowledging the courage, strengths of someone who has what we refer to as “disability” … we are all different … the main idea to me is not being treated or viewed as bad or inferior because if it.”

    I would appreciate if you would clarify a bit, but I will try to respond to some of what I think you’re saying.

    You said, “We certainly do not want to be all of the same do we?”

    This is not something I worry about, as everyone is a unique individual, regardless of perceived/disability status, so I think pointing out peoples’ differentness — unless an individual is requesting acknowledgment of their unique situation — is generally counterproductive and often hurtful.

    As to the differentiation between being called bad or inferior versus lauded as special and amazing, if I am understanding you correctly that you think the first is problematic and the latter isn’t, I disagree with you.

    PWDs are constantly having our differentness, our otherness, pointed out to us, in a thousand different ways — so many I can’t even go into it here. Pointing out our “otherness” — in other words, marginalizing us or making us more aware of our marginalization — whether this is done in a “good” way (“You’re so brave! Aren’t you special! You’re so courageous!”) or a “bad” way (“You’re a drain on society’s resources. You’re making extra work for the rest of us. Oh my goodness, your life is so tragic, I don’t know how you can stand it,”) are equally harmful. Both responses do not acknowledge the real people we are, but throw a costume of disability stereotype over our true selves, thereby erasing us.

    I think you are saying people should not all be treated the same, that if we do, we will all be boringly uniform? If so, I don’t agree. Everyone is interesting. Everyone has a story. I do an interview series for a magazine, and I love it because no matter who I talk to, once they start talking about their lives, it’s fascinating, and it really doesn’t matter what group they fall into. Everyone is basically doing the same thing — trying to live their lives and meeting as many of their needs as they can, whether that be the need to contribute to others’ well-being or the need to express themselves creatively or the need for space and freedom, etc.

    I do think that in general, everyone should be treated the same, yes, by which I mean that everyone should be treated as a human who has feelings and needs, and not as special feelings or special needs, whether “good” or “bad.” This does NOT mean I’m saying people shouldn’t be accommodated. On the contrary, everyone should be accommodated/included as much as possible, regardless of what type of disability is involved or if no type of disability is involved. Pointing out difference for the sake of difference doesn’t promote accommodation, though. You can have five people who all have the same disability, and they will have five different ways that they are best included and accommodated, so the “difference” is not really the point, the need is.

    I want to say, as a side note, that it’s very different what someone who knows and loves you says, and what strangers, the media, or others say. If I’m talking to my best friend about something I’ve done that was very hard for me, and she tells me I’m being courageous, I will usually feel pleased and grateful for having both my struggle and my efforts recognized by someone who really knows me. However, if someone just comes up to me and tells me I’m an inspiration or that I’m brave, just for existing, or for pursuing my dreams/passions, or for doing something mundane, I feel alienated and lonely, because I experience this as being made into a spectacle, a freak, and not being seen, but being a human clothes rack onto which that person/those people can hang their projections of who I am.

    Well, this has been a very long comment! I hope it made sense. Please let me know if I’ve understood you, and thanks again for visiting!

  16. 17 Sharon Wachsler May 5, 2011 at 12:10 am

    Thank you, Ashley! I appreciate it.

    This is to you, Eileen, and everyone else who has apparently come across this video and been bothered by it: If you come across others who are still passing it around, I would very much appreciate you directing them to this post, as there seems to be an “underground” of people who were upset by it, but very little overt discussion of the problematic aspects in relation to accurately indicating what a dog’s body language says and in relation to representations of people with disabilities.

  17. 18 Sharon Wachsler May 5, 2011 at 12:16 am

    Cait,

    This is SUCH great feedback. I did try to recall video I’ve seen of dogs who really liked surfing, but I couldn’t remember it clearly.

    My immediate response, when watching Ricochet on the surf board was that she looked tense and unhappy, but since I have never worked with a dog on surfing, and since I think I still have a lot to learn about dog body language, I didn’t want to jump to conclusions.

    I know that my dogs all showed very different body language on unstable surfaces, from Jersey, who was uncomfortable even jumping on my bed, to Barnum who was delighted, as a puppy, to try to climb children’s playground equipment that included a sort of slide made up of metal cylinders that each roll individual that he had to walk up! (His acrobatic tendencies were how he got his name!)

    If you ever get some footage up of Lizzie looking delighted on uneven footing, I’d love to see it!

  18. 19 Sharon Wachsler May 5, 2011 at 12:30 am

    Hi Kali,

    So much to respond to! From what I could make out from the little bit of research I did, the first $10K raised mentioned in that video went just to PT. Then, Ricki continued to raise money for Ivison with surfing (several thousand more dollars, if I remember correctly), which went toward PT, as well as a SD and for the future, when he’s old enough to drive, to modify a car for hand controls.

    And yes, I agree with what you say about Ricki being placed as an in-home SD. Since this might very well be what happens with Barnum (he is already helping me with some things around the house), for someone like me who doesn’t go out much, an in-home SD can be extremely useful. But that bit about “which could be dangerous for a person with a disability” brings to my mind the idea that PWDs are fragile and helpless and incapable of handling a dog who chases critters. Which is silly. I know there are people who would love an in-home SD who could have a fenced yard for the dog to play in (maybe fetch frisbee or balls) or have a partner or helper who could walk the dog, etc.

    And yes, I also wondered, with Ivison being a minor and therefore perhaps not having as much say in where he puts his energies as an adult, how much the PT and being on the news, etc., was his idea, and how much was the adults’ in his life. I definitely hear where you’re coming from in terms of questioning whose idea it is and how much his preferences are influenced by his parents, etc., but I also am trying to be careful not to psychoanalyze someone I don’t know or to put forth my own ideas about what his priorities “should” be, because really that’s none of my business. But yeah, I am very aware of Jerry Orphans, etc., and know several people who were poster children and look back on it with feelings of revulsion and hurt and anger at how they were exploited. I hope that is not the case here.

  19. 20 brilliantmindbrokenbody May 5, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Sharon, I agree totally about the ‘danger to pwd’ invisioning us as frail little things; not only that, but people who are incapable of determining what poses a risk and what risks are worth it for the returns! I imagine that for people who are in a heavy electric wheelchair, a dog that might make a dart after a bird is much less a danger than it would be for me, because that dog would be able to physically drag me, dislocate joints and/or knock me down where the ‘chair would be heavy enough to prevent that, and at least at my SD school, people in electric ‘chairs had the leash affixed to the chair, not in their hands. Not to mention, as you said, some of us are capable of dealing with a high prey drive.

    I, too, hope that Ivison does not end up feeling exploited by his treatment. From what I could put together, it sounded like his priorities were going to school on his own, independence, and surfing, and I wish him all the best in his endeavors. I can easily imagine how uncomfortable it could be to be a teen and have to rely enormously on a parent, particularly one of the opposite sex.

    If Ivison wants to walk, and do his expiramental PT, good for him…I just wish he could find a way to do it without bowing to so much of the mainstream ideas about pwds.

    With the costs involved, though, I can understand why he might do that. There are times that it really makes me sick how much it costs to try to be well!

    ~Kali

  20. 21 Cait May 5, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    I’ll try and get some video of Lizzie this week if it warms up enough to go to the lake – so far, we’ve only done a trial run with a float in the bathtub. 😛 But Lizzie’s body language is really different than Ricochet’s. (I shoudl also mention that Lizzie likes to fly off a-frames and teeters at full height and apparently does not believe the law of gravity appplies to her- she’s a nutty example of how all the drive in the world does NOT necessarily make a dog a suitable SD candidate- an interesting comparison to the very serious, thoughtful, moderate GSD pup I’m babysitting right now!! :P)

  21. 22 eileenanddogs May 5, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    Quoting Sharon:
    ” I just wonder, honestly, if she just loved the dog too much to give up, so she came up with this instead. There’s no crime in that. But, in terms of the dog behavior aspect of things, putting out a video saying the dog is joyous when she looks pretty uncomfortable, etc., compounds the problem of the Cesar Milan effect — it misleads the public about how to read a dog, which can cause so much harm.”

    Sharon, I like how you said it better than how I said it. It is generous, and probably accurate, to observe that the trainer loves this dog and is certainly not trying to do any harm. I probably shouldn’t have snorted around so much about lying. It almost certainly wasn’t a deliberate lie. I remember when I couldn’t or didn’t care to notice dogs’ body language. But it is a real hot button for me when people present something that is the opposite of what it says. Asking the dog to do something repeatedly that she dislikes becomes “letting her be herself.” And you described the harm it can do very well.

    And Cait, I too am eager to see your happy dog practicing surfing. I have noticed that certain breeds seem to take to skateboarding and surfing: I have seen bulldogs, Boston terriers, and Jack Russells all appear to enjoy it, so I know it’s not impossible. So I’m looking forward to seeing Lizzie.

    And back to Sharon: you bet I will refer folks who promote the video back to this blog . It hasn’t come around for a while, but I’m sure it will.


  1. 1 Is Your Blog Against Disablism Accessible to Disabled Bloggers (and Readers)? | Sharon Wachsler Trackback on May 1, 2013 at 11:54 am
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