Heidi & Service Dog Mercury
Five years ago, I was given an identity that I did not choose: disabled. Wheelchair bound, critically ill, deaf. Once again, society decided what a person like this can and cannot do. What happened to mother, wife, nurse, professional? Doesn't matter who I used to be, now I'm disabled. In society's eye, that changes everything. Of course, I fought it for a while, but eventually, I retreated to the sidelines: disabled person. I need people to help me get dressed, drive me to appointments, open doors, pick things up. I'm deaf, so that means I must not talk or think for myself. People ask my attendant instead of me, questions like where does she live or does she want a drink of water? Every time this happened, a little more of my identity was chipped away.
Little did I know that while my self-identity was shrinking, another identity was being formed. A fuzzy black bundle of energy was growing up, being prepared for an important job. A computer company had decided to help the community by sponsoring a Service Dog named Mercury. NEADS staff coordinated countless breeders, trainers, vets, handlers, volunteers, donors, all playing a part in creating the incredible animal he is today. The NEADS Prison PUP Program put Mercury in a position not only to learn obedience and special skills, but also to form a tight bond with a human, a person who could give him constant care and affection, teach him to trust and love and enjoy learning. The trainers put their faith into the inmate handlers to practice the task, but also to praise him as he learned and to discipline him in such a precise manner, that the mistake is corrected without diminishing his self-esteem or his willingness to take chances, and learn new skills. Veterinarians donated their time and equipment to make sure Mercury remained in perfect health and all his basic needs were met so he could focus on forming his Service Dog Identity. In addition, these vet visits exposed Mercury to sensations that may frighten other dogs, such as trimming his nails, cleaning his ears and teeth, lifting him up -- different experiences that happen infrequently, but are necessary. Volunteers brought Mercury into the community during his weekend parole, teaching him. While his strongest bond is with one individual, Mercury learned that all people can be trusted, to keep him safe and give him love.
Mercury and I met in August of 2008. His self- identity reflected a life lived without ever experiencing fear, anger, neglect, abuse. My identity had been whittled away with illness and disability and society's presumptions of my competence and independence. Each day our bond grew stronger. His trust in me encouraged me to trust myself. Every time he showed me that he respected my authority, I regained a little self-respect. When we're together in the community, his impeccable obedience and flawless response to commands draws attention to us, and the wheelchair seems to disappear as people ask about Mercury's training and share stories of dogs in their own lives. My identity is changing again. The disabilities remain, but first, I'm a mother, a wife, a nurse, a professional, an advocate, a teacher, a student and a team member. I'm hoping to return to my profession early next year as an independent consultant for people with disabilities. Mercury and I will help them establish their own self-identities by setting goals for employment, self-sufficiency and independence. My clients may even show up at NEADS someday. You'll know who they are, they'll say Mercury sent them."