Updated: Jul 2, 2022
Maria Oliveira’s Journey for Acceptance & Advocacy
By: Katie Carr
Most people have a close relationship with their dogs, but for Social Worker and Disability Advocate Maria Oliveira her cream standard poodle, Clary, is so much more than her friend. Clary is her lifeline. For the last two years Maria has trained Clary to be her medical alert and response service dog. The two of them are nearly inseparable. Even when she isn't on a leash Clary wants to be by her handler's side, monitoring her with just her sense of smell. She can alert to blood pressure drops and cardiac episodes two to five minutes before they happen, giving Maria time to get in a safe position and have Clary respond accordingly. Even when Clary was young, she knew that something wasn't quite right with her owner's health. “At about four or five months old she started doing these really weird behaviors towards me,” Maria said. "I got confused about why she was getting so fixated on me. It's like she was trying to tell me something." After a while she realized a pattern. Nearly every time Clary would stop, stand, and just stare at her, Maria would have a correlating medical episode.
Entering the Service Dog
“Before I even started university, I already had the idea in the back of my mind that I was going to need a service animal later on in my life. At the time, I thought it was mostly going to be for psychiatric purposes before I realized what was actually going on with my body was a lot more physical.” So when Maria started college at the University of Central Florida and saw an organization about service dogs during orientation week, she immediately knew that she wanted to get involved. The club on campus allowed volunteers to raise and train future service dogs to get placed with people with disabilities free of charge through Canine Companions.
Maria quickly became enthralled with their mission; participating in fundraisers, going to events, and eventually signing up to become a puppy raiser. Puppy raisers are responsible for socializing future service dogs, teaching them commands, and returning the pups to professional training after about a year and a half. This is just one of many college puppy raising clubs and “there are currently over 18 colleges and universities involved in the Canine Companions collegiate puppy raising program. Volunteer puppy raisers gain valuable skills including puppy handling, canine care, early socialization and much more” (Canine Companions). Many other service dog organizations utilize volunteer puppy raisers and have clubs on college campuses.
In August of 2018 Maria picked up a yellow labrador retriever puppy, Vivvy, to raise through Canine Companions. In June of 2021, Vivvy graduated as a Hearing service dog through Canine Companions. She alerts her handler to “key sounds by making physical contact such as nudging the leg or arm. Among the many sounds hearing dogs are trained to recognize and respond to are the sound of a doorbell, alarm clock, someone calling a name or a smoke alarm” (Canine Companions).
Training Her Own Service Dog
While raising Vivvy during August of 2019 Maria noticed that her health was declining. “I
already had many close calls that almost led me to having to drop out of school because my health wasn't doing too well. Medications were not doing anything, and I was putting myself in dangerous positions, and there was just nothing I could really do. I felt powerless in that way.” She decided to revisit the idea from highschool of getting a service dog. Initially she looked into getting a service dog from a nonprofit organization like Canine Companions. “I researched and I researched and I couldn't find something that was a fit for me’ so that's when I was like, ‘You know what? I think owner training is going to be the best option for me.’”
Owner training is an option where someone with a disability can train their own service dog. This offers the opportunity for people who want their dog to perform niche tasks or have uncommon conditions to have a dog specially trained for them. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act “People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program.”
The process of getting her own service dog started while Maria was still raising Vivvy. She met Clary when she was three weeks old at a Standard Poodle breeder. “Honestly, the reason I chose her was because she was the only one that seemed to like me. One peed on me, one didn’t care, and one was just sleeping. I picked [Clary] up and she just melted into my chest and I just knew it was meant to be.” Maria picked up Clary as an eight week old puppy in February of 2020, the same day that she turned Vivvy into Professional Training to be placed with someone. After lots of tears from dropping off Vivvy, Clary filled the Vivvy shaped hole in Maria’s heart.
The whole owner training process was stressful for Maria because she had no one to rely on. Just one month after picking up Clary, the Covid19 pandemic hit the United States and suddenly the University of Central Florida sent everyone home. Maria was granted permission to stay in the dorms because her family lives outside of the county. “It felt very lonely throughout the owner training process and trying to train during Covid while everything was closed.” Challenges like finding spaces to train in or socializing Clary to people arose due to the unsafe nature of Covid. Maria worked incredibly hard training Clary and setting her up for success during these unprecedented times. On top of learning basic obedience, service dogs need to learn how to do these and be comfortable in various environments. They later learn advanced tasks that mitigate their handler’s disability. Maria made due with the circumstances that Covid created and did as much public access training as she could safely.
Maria had a lot riding on training Clary. “Just because you train a dog doesn't mean that they will be successful, so you also risk the chance of your dog not working out at all, and now you are at two ends of loss. So if Clary didn’t work out, I would be screwed because I can’t afford to take on another dog into my life right now.” Luckily Clary loves working and it’s shown through her tail always wagging and her readiness to please. Maria shared that every few years owner trainers have to retrain a whole new dog for themselves, which can be physically and emotionally challenging. “We don't get the option to reapply [for a service dog through a training organization], we have to start all over again, which is hard and I know my health will not be any better in 8-10 years, it will definitely be worse.”
After putting so much energy, money, time, and effort into training Clary, Maria gets understandably upset when people question the validity of Clary as a service animal. “There isn't a wide acceptance of owner training.” Maria noticed that a lot of the friends she had through puppy raising no longer wanted to be associated with her anymore. After reaching out to other people in the owner trainer community, she learned that many people have unfortunately also experienced similar situations. Within the Service Animal Community, there tends to be a lot of judgment and stigma, often targeted at owner trainers. The people she once considered close friends while raising Vivvy, started excluding her and Clary from social events. It escalated to not allowing Clary to come to club events, and gossiping about her her. As Historian of the club, Maria was expected to come but without her service dog, who is legally allowed public access.
The outright ableism that they displayed was disappointing enough, but even more so since they raise service dogs for people with disabilities, like Maria. Even while she was raising Vivvy, Maria had experienced subtle ableism from her peers. “People in the club apparently were talking about me behind my back, saying that I should not be a raiser, that I was not qualified, that I was not healthy enough to be a raiser, despite being able to raise this dog already for a year,” Maria said. Obviously, she did a fine job and Vivvy is a happily working service dog. The actions of these few club members poorly represent the mission of puppy raising, as well as the thousands of hardworking volunteers that dedicate their time and money towards placing service dogs for people who need them. While there are many puppy raising clubs across the country that do a great job ensuring they are an ally to the disability community, this does prove that as allies, we need to do more work to prevent ableism in all settings. There is always room for growth.
Struggles with Stigma
Along with this, It’s been hard for Maria to come to terms with her disability herself because she looks “normal,” but now has a four legged label that screams “I am disabled.” When Maria told her parents that she was diagnosed with Lupus, her father questioned her diagnosis and had her go home to Brazil so that their doctors could confirm it. “Culturally, he did not accept the diagnosis because it came from an American doctor.” They are starting to accept her disability but they don't understand how much it affects her. Maria tends to mask her disability when she is home because in the past they have not taken her seriously.
“With my parents not accepting [my disability], it took me even longer to accept it myself." It took her doctor literally sitting her down to confront the harsh reality that if she didn't accept her conditions and help herself, that she would go into kidney failure. After trying her luck, she quickly realized something imperative: “Acceptance was my only option unless I wanted things to get bad.”
It wasn’t until Clary was about a year old that she told her family about having a service animal. She showed them some of Clary’s skills like tugging open a refrigerator and performing deep pressure therapy. They finally understood her importance when they witnessed Clary alert and respond to one of Maria’s cardiac episodes. “It’s just really hard in general for a parent to accept that there is something wrong with their child. It’s hard to think that ‘I brought a child into this world and I don't want anything to be wrong with them. I want them to be safe.’ This isn't something that they can protect me from because it is my body literally internally attacking itself”
It doesn’t make accepting her health any easier when the general public asks intrusive questions. On the outside Maria appears to be a young and able bodied person, so the general public tends to question why she needs a service animal. But “When someone makes me uncomfortable and won't stop, I will make them uncomfortable back.” While walking on campus, accompanied by her sidekick Clary, Maria encountered an elderly couple. Minding her business, Maria walks past them when the woman sternly approached her.
Stranger: Why does your dog have a vest?
Maria: She’s a service animal and in training to help me with my disabilities
Stranger: what? You’re young, you can’t have anything that wrong with you.
Maria: my condition is in my body, and yeah you can't see it, but she can smell it. I’m at my half life right now, just like you probably.
With wide eyes and an embarrassed demeanor, the older woman quickly backed back to her husband and ushered them away. That’s one fast way to get someone to leave you alone. These small, often morbidly humorous acts of defiance highlight the intrusive nature of the general public’s curiosity. You are not entitled to a stranger’s medical history. Unfortunately, Maria says, “There will always be stigma and there will always be someone saying something rude. You just have to do your best.”
Beyond the stigmas surrounding disability and service animals Maria faces in her personal life, are those she faces in her professional life. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from the University of Central Florida in 2021, and is on track to graduate this August with her Master’s degree. After completing her undergraduate education, Maria started applying for jobs immediately. On many online job applications there is a section that asks if you want to disclose if you have a disability. It is not required and applicants can leave the section blank with no penalties. Without thinking twice, Maria started checking those boxes and self identified to the companies as disabled. However she noticed a disturbing trend in the correlation between the companies that gave the option to self identify as disabled and the companies that would never call her in for an interview.
After she stopped checking that seemingly innocent box on applications, she instantly started getting calls for interviews. Even when she finally made it to interviews, things didn’t work out. Once the interview was wrapping up and it went well, Maria would casually slip in the fact that she has a service dog that would accompany her, she would get a generic demeaning response like “we’ll contact you to see if that’s going to work out” and then get denied for the job. It is illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of ability. An employer questioning if they can “work out” having a service dog in the workplace is equivalent to seeing if they can “work out” having someone bring their wheelchair to use. Service dogs are classified as medical equipment, they just happen to be alive.
Luckily Maria found the right place to work that embraces her AND Clary. For the last few months she has been working at a men's residential substance use rehabilitation facility. She helps them in the recovery process by providing housing, employment, Identification, legal resources, and anything else they may need. Her superiors even helped her train Clary to prepare for the possibility of a de-escalation event where a client becomes upset or hostile.
For graduate school, Maria needed an internship and found one at a similar substance use rehabilitation facility. After Maria completed her training and was prepared to start work the next day she sent an email to her new supervisor explaining that she has a medical alert and response service dog, attaching a cute photo of Clary in her vest for good measure.
Unfortunately, it can never just be that easy. Her new superior claimed that some of their clients and staff were scared of dogs and that a staff member reported dog allergies and pushed back Maria’s first day of work. The Americans with Disabilities Act explicitly says that “allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals” (ADA).
After a lot of worrying and waiting for a response from her new superior, she had a discussion with a mentor, the Vice President of the organization, who said that she would vouch for her and Clary. After not hearing anything, Maria sent her a message about her concerns and name dropped the Vice President, whose name holds a lot of weight in the company. While I was interviewing Maria, she finally got the email from her new superior saying that Maria and Clary were set to start working the next day, even though she had concerns about an employee that reported dog allergies. To which Maria told me “well thank god Clary is hypoallergenic.”
And while she was triumphant, there was an unfortunate amount of unnecessary anxiety that came from the possibility of having to delay her graduation should she not secure this internship. “I wouldn't be having this problem if I didn't have Clary but even better, if I didn't have Lupus, which has been affecting my heart. If I was able bodied this wouldn’t be an issue.”
Education & Advocacy
Experiences like Maria and Clary’s are far too common for people that have service animals and Maria has had to learn how to stand up for herself. She has found a passion for educating the public and advocating for the Disability Community. Being a Disability Advocate on social media and society is a large part of Maria’s identity and uses almost every chance she can to educate others about service animals. “When people ask [about service dogs], instead of finding them annoying, try to educate them… You can't expect someone to know something that they have never learned about. Especially in the service animal community, and the disabled Community.” She asked me, “what is the point of knowing something if you wont share it with anyone or have people grow from what you know?”
Part of this advocacy takes the form of sharing her life experiences on social media, particularly Instagram, to teach others and destigmatize having a disability. “I want to share my life whether it comes with employment, social interactions, or friends.” She hopes that by showing her life, people will feel more empowered to advocate for themselves and reach out to healthcare professionals if they think something is wrong. Being a social support for others is important to her because she struggles to reach out for assistance herself.
“We need to bring light to [The Disabled Community] so change can actually happen… Advocacy takes a lot of time and effort, but it is needed.” It is vital for volunteers in the Service Animal World to speak up for the populations they serve, however never speak over them. In order to be effective allies, able bodied volunteers need to listen to the Disabled Community. Maria puts it well by saying, “It’s important to remember that if someone that is disabled tries to point out an error or tries to correct something that you have said, to not get upset with them, and not try to invalidate them. Understand that they are the one living in their body and what they are saying, regardless of all the information you have, is still going to hold more truth”
Maria has to put this into practice in her own work, with substance users. “I understand a lot about them, but I will never say that I know 100%, despite what I have learned in the classroom and in practice, what they go through because I am not them.” We need to translate that line of thinking into the world of disability. Simply put, if you didn’t live it, you don't understand. But that is okay. You are never going to know 100% about anything so people need to just take accountability of that and accept that they need to learn. Maria also explained that just because one disabled person says something, it doesn't mean that is true for the whole community. Everyone has different lives, experiences, and preferences.
We all need to do better to make society more accommodating and accepting of the Disability Community. Especially because disability does not discriminate. It can happen to any person, any race, any age, and any identity so it’s imperative to be accepting of it and be willing to learn more because everyone deserves to be accepted. According to the Disability Funders Network approximately 54 million Americans have at least one disability and people with disabilities constitute the nation’s largest minority group, and is the only group any of us can become a member of at any time. However widespread disability is, it does not mean that every disabled person’s experience is the same. Some don't want a service dog. Some people get one. Some train their own. The important thing is to listen to their experiences and trust their ability to know what is best for them.
“ADA Frequently Asked Questions: Service Animals.” Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the Ada, https://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html.
“ADA Requirements: Service Animals.” ADA 2010 Revised Requirements: Service Animals,