I’m a mom of three children and my oldest daughter, Leah, has spina bifida. Five years ago, right around Thanksgiving, we got a service dog for Leah. Every day I’m thankful to have Kwincy, a yellow lab/golden retriever mix, as a part of our family.
Leah is in a wheelchair and requires some assistance with physical tasks. Despite her condition, she is very independent and requires little help with day-to-day routines, like getting dressed. It may take her a bit longer, but she can do it. Leah can’t always reach everything so Kwincy helps when she needs something out of her reach. Kwincy can also push the buttons that open automatic doors.
Leah currently plays sled hockey, and can self-propel her wheelchair with great skill.
When Kwincy first arrived in 2007, Leah needed more assistance than she does now. Over the past five years my daughter gained a great amount of independence. Kwincy has certainly helped her deal with some physical challenges, but the dog’s greatest impact has been on Leah’s social development. Other children on the playground sometimes only see Leah’s disability. But Kwincy creates a social bridge and often serves as an icebreaker when we enter a playground, the doctor’s office, or the hospital. Since we’ve had Kwincy, Leah has really come out of her shell. She’s gained self-confidence and enjoys interacting with her peers.
As a veterinarian, I’ve always appreciated the positive impact that animals can have on humans, but seeing it firsthand with my daughter has been astonishing. I have two other children without physical or developmental disabilities, and Kwincy really helps me when I am at the playground with all three of my children. He can help guide Leah around and engage in the fun. While playgrounds are increasingly becoming more accessible (our local playground, Millstone Creek Park in Westerville, OH is a shining example), there is still work to be done to accommodate people with service animals.
Based on our experience with Kwincy, I want to share a few playground design ideas that could help accommodate service animals at public parks:
- Provide better signage / information areas that explain how people should safely interact with service animals (here’s a helpful resource)
- Install wider ramps so that service animals can walk alongside a person with a disability rather than behind them
- Offer wheelchair-accessible play components in spaces large enough for a wheelchair and a service animal
- Consider a doggie water fountain or a water trough or basin, as noted in Playworld Systems’ Inclusive Play Design Guide
- Provide appropriate waste disposal for service animals (also noted in the IPDG)
Since we’ve had Kwincy, my daughter has come to realize that she and her service dog can also provide comfort and help to others in a variety of circumstances, not just on the playground. For example, during our last doctor visit, Kwincy and Leah comforted a child who was afraid. Above all else, Kwincy has shown all of us that Leah doesn’t always have to be that child who needs assistance. Now she has the power to help people, too.