By guest blogger, Joey Ramp
College can be a stressful time given the best of conditions. The course work is challenging and fast paced, college can be difficult to manage financially, the environment is hectic and many times classes are spread far apart over a large campus. In addition, there may be limited time to get from one class to another, through a thick mass of students in a hurry to get to a class, while socializing with each other or on cell phones.
So, why talk now about school when summer has just begun for many students? Returning to classes may be the last thing on your mind. But if you are going to attend college in the Fall with a service dog, now is the time to start planning and preparing for the first day of class.
Even though Theo and I have been through a year and a half in a college setting as a team, we still take the summer months to review, train and practice. During this time we continue to visit the campus and walk the halls when the traffic is slower and visit with ODS (Office of Disability Services). When the course room location is posted, we visit each classroom with the instructor, to determine the best location for Theo so he is out of the way, and the best location for me with my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). During this time I make a choice to talk to the instructors about any concerns that I may have, I explain my needs to accommodate my limitations, talk about my goal's and ask the instructors questions. I also discuss Theo's function and his alert signals in case of an emergency. I encourage the instructors to ask any questions that they might have. I take this time to acclimate myself, and to set the instructors mind at ease if they have concerns. And I also educate them on service dog protocol if they have not had an opportunity before to interact with a service dog team. I stress, this is not a requirement, it is a choice I make. You are not required to have any discussions about your individual disability; per the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) only two questions can be asked that you are required to answer:
1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
2) What work or tasks has the dog been trained to perform?
Some may disagree with me on this, but I find having this discussion with every instructor before a class starts makes the transition into a new classroom environment more manageable for both Theo and I. I want to add that it is not required by law to register with the school's Office of Disability Services, but I make the choice to do so. I find that having a trained network of advocates behind me can be exceptionally helpful if I run into obstacles with either instructors, students or logistics in maneuvering the campus.
The benefit of having Theo with me everyday at school is immeasurable. Without him I am certain I would not have made it this far, nor would I have been as successful. My first semester returning to college at the age of 48 I was not accompanied by Theo. Suffering from severe Chronic Complex PTSD the semester was an endless cycle of panic and triggers. I would take the hallway with the least amount of people, skirting the walls with my head down trying to be as invisible as possible. I was continuously startled into total panic and dissociation by something as simple as a student coming around a blind corner. If anyone spoke to me I would freeze out of terror, and start shaking and crying, then panic and leave the building. I would sit alone under the stairwell out of sight between classes.
Once Theo and I were paired together everything changed. Not only does he help regulate my PTSD but he helps by pulling me up stairs, as my left leg does not always cooperate, he balances me in the busy halls, he makes a path through crowds and he "blocks" by placing his body between myself and other people. He picks up items I continuously drop, since my left hand is limited in range of motion and strength, and my back injury prevents me from bending on some days. He has redirected me to a safe place when I was confused while dissociating or panicked, he alerts me when I am triggered so I can leave an area and so many other tasks. He has given me confidence and I now walk through the halls with my head up. Many of the students know us from being in a class together, or have just seen us so often, they wave and smile, sometimes Theo and I stop and chat. Administrators comment on the change they have witnessed in me over the course of two years. Not only am I the elected President of the colleges Club Access, the club whose mission is to educate the community and bring awareness to the public regarding individuals with disabilities, but I have worked with the college to update safety and security protocol to more effectively aid those individuals at the college who are struggling with PTSD. Theo has made this possible. But there are and will continue to be things for me to consider and overcome with having a service dog at school:
Being prepared can mean the difference between having a smoother and more successful college experience with your service dog and having a frustrating and potentially unsuccessful experience. For me every semester is a brand new start, kind of like ground hog day; it is never simply smooth and old hat. Each semester with PTSD is hard with new instructors, new classrooms, new faces and new schedules. It is in essence a battle ground for me every 16-weeks. Having Theo as my "battle buddy" and partner makes each semester possible. By familiarizing him with as many new situations and new people or locations ahead of time as possible takes pressure off of us both when the coursework starts. I can be comfortable knowing he has got it when I need him to be on, because we have been there and done that. Also my experience with the things I mentioned above has given me advantages I did not have in my first semester with him. I know now how to prepare and what to expect and what to avoid.
In my next guest blog I will discuss what I have learned about my own PTSD; how I am learning to manage it and be successful.
Positive light always,
Joey and Theo
Joey Ramp and her service dog Theo are currently attending college with the hope of completing a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience; to provide a wide range of first-hand knowledge and life experience to the study of PTSD. With a degree in secondary education, they are finishing Chemistry pre-requisites at Parkland College before transferring to the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Illinois. Joey and Theo work diligently advocating and providing support for others suffering from PTSD, by speaking on panels and at seminars, giving voice to those who have not found theirs yet. Joey struggles with Chronic Complex PTSD, and struggles with significant pain and physical limitations. Joey and Theo work together to make a difference in removing the stigma, helping individuals who are struggling and providing a positive example of what recovery and moving forward can look like.
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