[Nfbnet-members-list] The Intersection of Guide Dog Use & Mental Health

Marion Gwizdala, President president at nagdu.org
Thu Jul 2 00:08:12 UTC 2020

Please circulate the following message as widely as appropriate.

July 1, 2020

                 The National Federation of the Blind is committed to 
securing the rights of all blind individuals, including those at the 
intersection of blindness and mental health. As a division of the 
National Federation of the Blind, the National Association of Guide 
Dog Users represents the interests of those who choose to use a guide 
dog as one of their tools of independent mobility. When a blind 
person is denied training by a guide dog program due to a previous 
diagnosis of a mental illness, we feel obligated to Act!

                 The National Association of Guide Dog Users has been 
contacted by two individuals screened out from training by 
Southeastern Guide Dogs due to their publicly published policy 
automatically disqualifying individuals from application due to a 
list of mental health conditions. One of these individuals is a 
licensed attorney who disclosed a previous diagnosis of bipolar 
disorder when applying to the state bar, was vetted by the bar, and 
deemed fit to practice law in the state. This person was preparing to 
retire a 12-year-old owner-trained guide dog and thought Southeastern 
Guide Dogs Would be a good fit because their parents live in 
Bradenton. The second is an office manager of a very busy 
three-office ophthalmology practice. After being denied training by 
Southeastern Guide Dogs due to a previous diagnosis of bipolar 
disorder, this person received a guide dog from Freedom Guide Dogs 
and has been working as a successful team for nearly three years.

                 Just as I believe a guide dog may not be the best 
choice for every blind person, I also believe that there are mental 
health conditions that might preclude someone from being a good guide 
dog user. However, there are many factors to be considered when 
making that decision, a process known as an individualized 
assessment. (Please see the excerpt from federal law concerning this 
cited below.) This is very different than what Southeastern Guide 
Dogs calls automatic disqualification. This will likely be a topic 
for a future Braille Monitor article. You can view the entire list of 
disqualifying conditions on Southeastern's official page


                 Southeastern Guide Dogs is fully aware of our 
objection to this policy and our belief that this policy violates 
Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. On June 15, I sent 
an email message to Titus Herman, Southeastern Guide Dogs'  chief 
executive officer, citing specific sections of the Act. This message 
closed with the following statement:

"The National Association of Guide Dog Users strongly urges 
Southeastern Guide Dogs to modify their policies, practices, and 
procedures automatically disqualifying blind individuals with mental 
health disorders from applying for and receiving a guide dog from 
your organization. Within our membership, we have experts on mental 
illness and the law who can help Southeastern Guide Dogs craft sound, 
effective policies that respect the dignity of the individual while 
complying with state and federal law should you need such expertise. 
I am open to discussing this issue further with you or your 
representative(s). We would appreciate a response to our concerns by 
June 30, 2020."

             As recently as June 22, we brought this up to Susan 
Wilburn, Southeastern Guide Dogs' Director of Admissions and Graduate 
Services. Ms. Wilburn stated the disorders listed on their website 
had been reviewed by a psychiatrist. I mentioned our concern again 
and advised I had written to Mr. Herman and John Compton, 
Southeastern's board secretary and an attorney. As of this writing, I 
have had no response.

             Guide dog training programs are places of public 
accommodation as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act 
(ADA). Mental illness can be considered a disability under the Act. 
Discrimination is defined, in part, as "the imposition or application 
of eligibility criteria that screen out or tend to screen out an 
individual with a disability or any class of individuals with 
disabilities from fully and equally enjoying any goods, services, 
facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations, unless such 
criteria can be shown to be necessary for the provision of the goods, 
services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations being 
offered". 42 USC 12182(b)(1)(i).

                 If you or someone you know has been denied training 
by Southeastern Guide Dogs or any other guide dog training program 
due to a previous diagnosis of a mental health condition, we would 
like to hear from you. The information we receive will be kept 
strictly confidential in compliance with state law and codes of 
ethics. , so you will remain anonymous. Please contact us in whatever 
format you feel most comfortable

Advocacy Help Line: (202) 573-8582
Confidential Email: advocacy at nagdu.org

National Association of Guide Dog Users Inc. (NAGDU)
National Federation of the Blind
(202) 573-8582
Advocacy at NAGDU.ORG
<http://nagdu.org/>Visit our website
<http://twitter.com/nagdu>Follow us on Twitter

The National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the 
characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise 
expectations because low expectations create barriers between 
blind  people and our dreams. You can live the life you want! 
Blindness is not what holds you back.

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