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Bedford Township native, new service dog make great team

Bedford Now - 10/12/2017

Friends of Katie Shelley of Bedford Township are long used to seeing her use a wheelchair to get around.

But now Shelley also has an assistance dog named Petunia. And while it has taken some time to get use to the logistics, Shelley is looking forward to the additional independence and freedom she will have with a trained animal companion.

Shelley has already noticed that a service dog tends to attract cheerful greetings from passers-by.

“So many more people are happy to see you!” she explained.

Shelley, 28, is a 2007 graduate of Bedford High School. She received her degree in English literature in 2011 from Western Michigan University and is currently a master of liberal studies graduate student at University of Toledo with a focus in disability studies. UT is one of the first colleges in the country to offer disability studies as an academic specialty — she expects to work as an advocate in that field.

While it’s a change from her earlier plans of becoming an English teacher, it suits her well. This comes not just from her first-hand experience as a disabled person, but with her work as an intern at The Ability Center of Greater Toledo.

Shelley has had cerebral palsy since birth. She can walk on her own for short distances with a walker and use a manual wheelchair, but for longer distances, a power wheelchair is more practical.

She grew up in an era when the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 aimed to prohibit discrimination based on disability. That federal law led to accommodations such as wheelchair ramps and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms becoming more common in public areas, along with updated expectations relating to employment and educational opportunities.

But as she plans to explain in her thesis research at UT, “there are still places that are not ADA-compliant.”

For example: she enjoys history and likes to visit historical places. But sometimes they have not been adapted to the needs of those with physical limitations.

Given the discussions that already take place on the social and historical implications of discrimination, she said, it is time to extend the public discourse into how equal access and opportunity also are relevant to people with disabilities.

“They just overall want to be treated like everyone else,” she said.

For example, one of her cherished memories as a youth was attending a summer camp at Maumee Bay State Park in Ohio that the Ability Center ran for children with disabilities. It was the only opportunity she had like that when growing up.

“My goal is to live independently,” she added. Except for a brief time while she was at Western Michigan, Shelley has always lived with her parents.

The Ability Center’s mission is to help individuals work toward their goals, raising awareness and advocacy about the issues while also assisting people with disabilities on practical matters. Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence is one of its programs. Shelley and her service dog, Petunia, were among the graduates in August.

Before participating in the two-week, full-time training course, Shelley had to go through an application and waiting process that often takes two years. She was accepted into the assistance dog program in October 2016.

Petunia is a black lab, 2 ½ years old. She was raised to be a service dog; as were two of her litter mates. Labs tend to do well as assistance dogs, Shelley said, as they are both friendly and intelligent.

If all goes as expected, Petunia will be working for six or seven years before retiring to pet status. The trained dog’s skills include reaching for a wheelchair button at a door, picking up something that fell on the floor, pushing back and forth foot rests on a wheelchair and using a rope tied to a handle to open a clothes washer door.

As a working dog, she can’t be treated the same as a pet. Petunia has her own bed, in Shelley’s bedroom. There’s a strict diet and exercise routine.

In the meantime, the dog wears identification so that others understand she is trained for certain tasks and should be left alone unless the owner gives permission for a friendly visit.

“She’s just been a really great companion so far,” Shelley said.

Petunia is “just here to help me like this wheelchair is to help me.”

 
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