By Chris Halliday
She sits alone on the Orangeville Transit bus fixated on the pictures of her emotional support dog found on her cellular phone.
As more people board the bus, the woman in her mid-30s looks away and senses her anxiety levels starting to rise. A quick glance back at her phone helps calm her down.
“We have never been apart,” the Orangeville woman says of her support dog, a nine-year-old Jack Russell Terrier. Except when she is on the bus.
Linda, who has been given a pseudonym to protect her identity, suffers from anxiety, depression, panic attacks and a fear of being in public spaces. Her support dog helps to alleviate those symptoms when she is out in public.
“I don’t like people. When I get into crowds, my mind goes blank and I don’t remember why I’m out. The dog is there to distract me,” Linda said. “If somebody comes up and talks to me, normally it is about the dog so that is OK.”
In late October, Linda claims an Orangeville Transit driver refused to allow her emotional support dog board the bus. Earlier this month, Linda was told by another driver that her dog could only ride the bus if was placed in a cage.
Linda has continued to ride the bus without her support dog. She doesn’t agree or enjoy it, but her mental health conditions prevent her from advocating for herself in public.
“I’m not exactly good at that because then I get frustrated and panicky,” said Linda, who suffers from frequent panic attacks. “I don’t like starting trouble.”
Instead, Linda sits at the back of the bus staring at her cellphone, fighting her symptoms aboard the crowded bus. The pictures of her support dog are her lone source of comfort.
“That kind of helps,” Linda said. “I can go out without her but she makes it a lot easier for me. I’m just really uncomfortable doing it.”
Under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), an animal is recognized as a service animal if a person with a disability provides documentation from a regulated health professional confirming he or she requires the animal for reasons relating to his or her disability.
The animal must also be readily identifiable as being used as a service animal by way of visual indicators, such as a vest or harness.
Linda claims to have both categories covered. Even though she says the driver who didn’t let her dog on the bus earlier this fall never asked for it, Linda carries a note from her doctor stating the animal be considered a service dog.
Her dog also wears a “service dog” vest accompanied by a “support dog” ID card when in public.
“I have all the ID and stuff with me. She has her vest on,” Linda sighed. “I’d just like her to be accepted.”
Town spokesperson Sheila Duncan tells The Banner that management with First Student Canada, which operates Orangeville Transit, is not aware of anyone with a service animal being denied access to a bus.
Although technically different service dogs are specifically trained to help mitigate a person’s disabilities while emotional support dogs aren’t Duncan said the town considers the two terms to be “interchangeable.”
“In general, service animals are animals that have been trained to assist people with visible and invisible disabilities,” Duncan said. “They have been trained to be out in public, providing a safety assurance to other transit passengers.”
If a person’s animal can’t be easily identified as a service animal, Duncan said bus drivers may ask a customer to provide a letter from a physician confirming the person requires a service animal.
“The driver may refuse to allow a customer to board with an animal if these conditions are not met,” Duncan said. “All other pets must be contained in an animal cage.”
Linda, who receives a disability pension and doesn’t own a vehicle, says she “has to” continue riding Orangeville Transit. She would prefer to do it with her emotional support dog on her lap.
“I’d just like her to be recognized because I know she is not the only one,” Linda sighed. “They’re becoming more popular but they are not just recognized very well in Ontario.”
Chris Halliday covers Dufferin County, school board and police. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.