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October 2004

Taking the "dis" out of disabled!

By Kimberly Carnevale
Founder, Canine and AbledTM.

I never saw it coming, so I couldn't fight back. I'd always been so good at fighting pain, frustration, and uphill battles, but how could I fight something I couldn't see?

When I began my drive on July 2, 1998, I was a professional athlete vying for a spot on the United States Equestrian Team. I was accustomed to adversity; it was ingrained in my never-give-up mentality to fight it at all costs for the greater glory of success. Only this time, I faced my greatest adversary; one that would take the very essence of who I was and leave it shattered and mangled right there on the highway … right next to the remains of my broken dream.

My journey ended tragically approximately ten minutes from my planned destination. While navigating the off ramp of my exit off of the NJ Turnpike, the car I was driving was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer and I was left with multiple, permanent injuries; the most substantial being a brain injury. I was forced to relearn what most of us take for granted such as reading, writing, walking, and talking. I had developed seizures, and an intense fear of being, or going anywhere alone for fear that I would be attacked in my prone condition. My abrupt detour from my dream led me down a road that I wasn't sure I could navigate. It was a grueling, excruciating rehabilitation, one that would take years. I wanted to give up. I tried, but something wouldn't let me. That something was an amazing canine named Dewey.

with Dewey and Dawson.

Dewey

When I first met him in 1994, Dewey was a malnourished pup in desperate need of someone to love and take care of him. He belonged to the caretaker of the stables where I boarded my show horses. Unfortunately, the caretaker didn't take very good care of Dewey. The eighteen-month old St. Bernard/German Shepard mix lived on a ten-foot chain tethered to the mobile home porch that was his home. He had no shelter from the elements, except what his chain would allow him to burrow beneath the slatted porch. His floppy ears were raw and infected from a constant barrage of flies, and he was fed an inconsistent diet of scraps and leftovers.

One day, I overheard the stable management discussing plans to have Dewey taken to the vet to be put to sleep. I rushed over to see what they were talking about, and they explained to me that the caretaker had been sent to jail and that there was no one to care for Dewey. Instead of having him wait out his time nervously on an adoption that would never happen, they agreed that it would be more humane to have him put down. Before I could stop myself, the words, "I'll take him," tumbled off my lips and I was the new owner of an eighty-five pound, eighteen-month old, untrained, malnourished, over-zealous pup named Dewey.

I had a plan. I was going to take Dewey in, clean him up, put some weight onto him, put some badly needed training into him, and find someone to adopt him. It worked. I adopted him. I had no way of knowing at the time that my good deed would lead to my own rescue.

Immediately following my release from the hospital, Dewey started reacting to my impending seizures. He would sit on my feet, preventing me from moving until the even passed. If I were walking, he would block my path and wouldn't relent until I sat down. I felt a sense of calm when I realized that Dewey was alerting-it was if he understood and took it upon himself to become my rescuer. My world began to get brighter again, and I was confidant being left alone at home again-a big triumph for me. Eventually, the outside world and its new challenges beckoned me from my reclusive existence. I knew I was in no shape to go it alone, but fortunately, I was never going to be alone again; I had Dewey.

We decided to have Dewey evaluated at a service dog-training center to see if he could be trained to be a service dog and assist me in public places. After enduring a rigorous training regimen and brushing up on basic obedience, Dewey earned the title of service dog. The dog I'd rescued returned the favor and became my very lifeline. I thought my troubles were over-little did I know they were just beginning.

Shortly after being partnered with my service dog, I started experiencing access denial; the illegal refusal of an establishment to grant entry to a person accompanied by a service dog. At first, intimidated and self-conscious because of my slurred, dyslexic speech, I would back down from the confrontation and return home-back to the prison of my disabilities with one more shred of dignity stripped away.

The access denials continued and I felt myself slipping into a deep, dark depression. I was in so much pain and so unsure of myself as it was. To have to fight to get through almost every door I approached seemed too much to bear. Dewey had restored my hope that a new life could exist beyond the confines of my disabilities. I held steadfast to that belief through all the painful rehabilitation and through the frustrating process of relearning a new way of life; but now that hope was beginning to wane.

One particularly pain-filled evening, I set out to pick up a few things at a local department store. I wanted to get in and out as soon as possible, for I knew that my wobbly legs were not going to cooperate for long. I saw an employee at the doorway and sent up a silent prayer of thanks for the door I thought he was holding open for me. Instead of the polite greeting I expected, the young man delivered an angry rant including insulting expletives that were aimed at me and my "stupidity" for thinking that I could bring my dog into his store. I took a deep breath and choked down my anger while patiently trying to explain to him that I was disabled and Dewey was my service dog. He would hear none of it. Finally, anger like no other I had ever felt in my life welled up inside of me, and willing my injured brain and slurred speech to cooperate, I said, "Look! I am disabled and this is my service dog. Under federal, state, and local law, he is to accompany me in all public places. I am in a lot of pain right now and don't have the time or energy to deal with your foul-mouthed insults. If you have a problem with my dog, or me, I suggest you take it up with the policeman on the corner. Right now, I'm going shopping." With that, I spun around with Dewey steadfastly at my side and continued past him to do my shopping.

On my way out of the store, the employee hurried up to me to apologize. I accepted his apology and left. I got into my car and cried. A lot. I cried because even though the young man had apologized to me, he didn't mean it. One of the other employees had told him of his indiscretion and made him aware of the serious trouble he could have gotten himself, and his employer in. I cried because he didn't understand, nor did he want to, that Dewey was my very lifeline, and without him, I didn't see life worth living anymore. I cried because frankly, I didn't know what else to do about it.

That evening right before bed, I prayed to God to figure out a way to handle all the access denials and other rude behaviors that I was being subject to. I asked for the tenacity to stay the course and give Dewey the opportunity to perform the job that he had taken on and proved to be flawless at. I prayed for the ability to join the world of the living again.

That night, I woke with a start. I'd had a dream where I realized that the common denominator in all access denials was lack of education. If people were aware of disability laws and the rights of service dog teams, they wouldn't deny us access. What if I explained to people what different types of service dogs do for different types of disabilities? Surely, they would change their mindsets if they knew the tremendous benefits these wonderful canines provide for their partners! It was all so clear now. I saw myself going back to all the businesses that had denied me access and speaking to their managers, offering to come in to meet with their staff in order to educate them to disability rights and business responsibilities. I saw myself sharing my story with the hope that it would impart compassion-a compassion that would spread throughout my own community, and infiltrate others, in order to help promote awareness and acceptance of service dog teams everywhere. In short, I saw a new dream. I saw Canine and AbledTM.

Kimberly with Dewey and Dawson.

Canine and Abled

Canine and AbledTM is a non-profit organization I founded that addresses the wide-spread, yet little publicized problem of access denial throughout the service dog community. Dewey and I set out on a mission to abolish access denial and we vowed to open hearts and doors to persons with disabilities who rely upon the assistance of service animals. Together we educated countless teams of management and staff about their rights and responsibilities toward their clientele with disabilities. I let them know how the seemingly harmless words, "You can't bring that dog in here!" could devastate a person who spent the entire day just getting to the door that had been closed to them in those seven dreaded words. I shared my entire story in the form of a motivational speaking program, hoping to spread encouragement and inspiration in others, sharing with them the tools that I'd used first as an athlete; then as an accident victim in order to achieve my ultimate goals…all the while lacing service dog education throughout the program. Dewey and I vowed not to relent on our pursuit of free access, and together, he and I embarked upon a journey that is nothing less than a miracle…

Since those early days of Canine and AbledTM, much has changed. Dewey retired from his job in 2002, leaving a huge hole in my life…one that would take a miracle to fill. I'm a big believer in miracles, though, and just as my prayers had been answered in the past, God answered them again by bringing me Dawson; Dewey's Collie protégé. This engaging, extremely intelligent youngster had big "shoes" to fill, but he was up to the challenge and took to his training flawlessly. In addition, Dawson is a big ham, and his enthusiasm for his work spills over into a great stage show in his Canine and AbledTM performances where he demonstrates different types of tasks that service dogs can do to help people with a wide range of disabilities.

On July 2, 1998 I lost a dream. I found out the hard way that even the best of dreams are not immune to disaster. But I was about to learn an important lesson; one that I find a need to share with others; and that is if we have faith in ourselves and our abilities, there are bigger, better dreams that are just waiting for us to discover them and they will fulfill us in ways that we could never have imagined.

Dewey, Dawson and I set out on a mission to help abolish access denial. What I have discovered is that I am now able to instill hope and inspiration by sharing my story, I have been able set aside pre-conceived notions about disabilities and replace them with a sense of compassion, or at the least, understanding. This is something that I could never before imagined myself doing, but now I can't imagine myself doing anything else. Funny how things work out that way, isn't it?

My dogs have brought my recovery to a level where doctors and medications could not achieve. They have been my saving grace. They have been there to get me out of bed on the days that I felt like giving up and giving in. They make me laugh, just when I think I'll never smile again. I faced challenges that I never would have bothered overcoming had it not been the self-less assistance of my dogs. One of those challenges was re-learning how to read and write again. I had to read and write in order to make brochures and educational materials. I forced myself to do it, out of necessity and the pursuit of a new dream. That tenacity paid off, because in June of this year, my book "Canine and AbledTM - Taking The Dis Out Of Disabled" was released. This is something that I never would have been able to do without the support of my service dogs.

Kimberly with daughter Sarah and Dawson.

The journey

In March of 2001, I happily discovered that I was pregnant. My pregnancy was high-risk and doctors doubted as to whether my broken body would be able to maintain a full-term pregnancy. On November 9, 2002, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl named Sarah. Miracles really can a do come true!

Throughout this journey I've learned that blessings come to us when we least expect them … challenges come just when we think we can't take anymore … and miracles happen when we have faith in everything that we do … Sarah, Dewey, Dawson, and Canine and Abled are all proof of that. The next time you're feeling downtrodden and can only seem to focus on what's wrong in life … take a moment to step back and see what's right with it. I can guarantee that by changing your perspective, things will be a whole lot brighter!

I'm often asked what my service dog does for me. I look down at this noble creature by my side and I say, "My service dog has restored my ability to lead a normal life. It is because of him that I was ABLE to recover from my accident. It is because of him that I was ABLE to become a contributing member of my community. It is because of him that I was ABLE to start this program, and it is because of my service dog that I am ABLE to take the "dis" out of disabled!"

Kimberley invites readers to contact her and can be reached via email: canineandabled@aol.com. For more information about the Canine and AbleTM program, log onto: www.canineandabled.com.

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