People kept taking my picture. They asked to grab photos while I waited in line, snuck quick shots they thought I didn’t notice, and brazenly pointed their phone at me as I passed them.
Not that I could blame them ― I would probably take a picture, too. After all, it’s not every day you see a snow-skiing dog. And my fellow skiers likely didn’t know this, but they were sharing the mountain with what is, as far as I know, the world’s first downhill-skiing service dog.
I’ve been skiing since I was three years old, and it’s the only sport I’m even mildly successful at. So when I got the opportunity to spend a weekend on the slopes in Park City, Utah, with my little brother, I jumped at it. We had both contracted and recovered from COVID-19 in mid-December, and we figured the last weekend of January would be the perfect time to squeeze in a quick ski trip while we were still protected by COVID antibodies. I booked a hotel and lift tickets at Deer Valley Resort, and for the first time since having a service dog, I took a ski trip.
I’ve been autistic and ADHD my whole life, but my diagnosis of both came late (ages 19 and 22, respectively), and it wasn’t until 2019 that I considered the use of a service animal. Then, when the pandemic sent us all into lockdown at home, I decided the timing was perfect to select and train an animal. Maeve, a miniature Aussiedoodle, came home with me the first week of April last year.
She was already an older puppy, and had a calm, attentive demeanor. We spent nearly three months training her to provide timed medicine reminders during the day, and another three months teaching her to behave calmly in public spaces. By the time she was a year old, she was a task-trained service animal. Because both autistic and ADHD individuals struggle with executive functioning (such matters as task planning, working memory, distractibility/impulsivity, and awareness of the passage of time), our neurologically-based difficulties can make a responsibility like taking medicine at specific times of day nearly impossible. Maeve, however, ensures that I never miss a dose.
So now Maeve goes everywhere I go, and her presence is safeguarded by law. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects task-trained, well-behaved service animals in every context except those where the inclusion of the animal would create a threat to the health or safety of others. For example, you cannot allow your service dog to eat off the table at restaurants, or carry it on a roller coaster with you.
It’s for this reason that service animals are not allowed to independently board and freely ride ski lifts. Even avalanche dogs can struggle with riding lifts, and your average service dog is not trained to safely travel on an open chairlift. The chance of the animal intentionally (or unintentionally) disembarking the chair mid-lift is too high, and poses a threat to skiers below. Additionally, in the case of a chairlift malfunction, the tool used to evacuate humans from a suspended chair is not suitable to secure and lower a dog to the ground. Thus, every ski resort in North America has had a quiet rule: no service animals on the slopes.
There’s only one problem with this ban: not all service animals need to board or freely ride a chairlift in order to stay with their handlers. Once upon a time, service animals were used primarily by the blind and deaf, and were almost always large dogs. The nature of those disabilities can make a larger animal advantageous, and 50-plus-pound breeds like golden retrievers and German shepherds once comprised the overwhelming majority of service animals.
These days, though, a much broader group of disabled people enjoy the help of a service animal. Rather than just guiding a blind person, a service dog might be trained to detect blood levels in a diabetic, anticipate seizures for an epileptic, interrupt anxiety-amplifying behaviors for someone with panic disorder, or alert a neurodivergent person when it’s time to take their essential medicine.
Mirroring this wider variety of service tasks is the variety of dog breeds trained to perform them. Today, you are much more likely than 30 years ago to encounter a legitimate working dog under 50 pounds. And while most are still over 20 pounds, some, like Maeve, weigh in at even less. And it is not only possible, but perfectly safe, to transport a small or medium-size service animal in a front- or back-pack. This simple solution satisfies the legal requirement for ensuring the safety of others and allows a proportion of service dog handlers to still access the ski slopes.
Still, the service dog ban has been a little-known but strictly enforced guideline in the ski industry. Little-known, I suspect, for two reasons: Ski resorts don’t like to advertise that they are inaccessible to certain people, and very few folks’ idea of a vacation involves advocating for a more nuanced and lawful approach to the inclusion of people with service animals.
For most disabled people, this type of accessibility fight is a recurring event in daily life. So despite the use of smaller service dogs by many people for years now, ski resorts have continued to toe the line that such animals simply cannot be accommodated.
So perhaps I should have anticipated it when ski patrol frantically waved me down on the first ski day of my weekend trip this January. I had Maeve, who weighs 15 pounds, secured in a front-pack on my chest. After 20 years of skiing, I suspected I would have no trouble traversing the slopes with that additional weight on my frame, and I was right. And seeing as Maeve’s presence did not meet the standard in the ADA of posing a direct health or safety risk to others, I simply packed her into the dog bag we typically use on my motorcycle and took off on that first day.
But when the ski patrol officers flagged me down, they insisted that no matter what the ADA says, service animals are not allowed on the slopes. When I asked to speak to the person in charge of that decision, I was told it would be a waste of my time ― that that person would inevitably tell me the same thing. It took my most adamant insistence (and the mention of potentially filing a complaint with the state civil rights commission) to persuade the ski patrolman to tell me to whom I could appeal the service animal ban.
I have no clue how many other disabled service dog handlers have been given the same directive and have slipped off a mountain feeling baffled. Or worse, embarrassed, because trust me when I say being publicly denied accommodation is humiliating.
But I suppose some part of me did anticipate this confrontation, because as soon as I was stopped on the slopes that first day, I realized that I was resolved to take the conversation about service animal access to the highest authority I could. As someone who works at a disability research center (I am the communications coordinator at Vanderbilt University’s Frist Center for Autism and Innovation in Tennessee), advocating for accessibility felt like the right thing to do. In this case, that meant appealing to Steve, the director of Deer Valley Mountain Operations.
My initial call to Steve mostly consisted of me assuring him that I was an actual disabled person with a legitimate, task-trained service animal. Once I had Steve convinced that I was not simply trying to take advantage of service dog laws, he agreed to meet with me at 9 the next morning. I showed up to that meeting with several documents printed out and highlighted, including the 2010 analysis of the ADA and the Department of Justice’s Service Animal FAQ document. I took Maeve with me, and brought her front pack in order to demonstrate how she safely rides along with me. Steve reviewed the documents, which he already had some familiarity with. But for the first time, he was reading the law in the context of service dogs on the slopes, and I watched as he began to realize the implications of the ADA’s service dog guidelines for U.S. ski resorts.
He began to ask specific questions about what task my animal performed, how exactly I attached her to myself, and my own experience as a skier. He called in the head of the ski patrol to assess whether my pack for Maeve would still allow for chairlift evacuation if necessary. And ultimately, he gave me his express permission to ski with Maeve, both that day and in the future. He promised to make similar accommodations on a case-by-case basis for future service animals and to put more accessibility information on the Deer Valley website.
Steve told me, when I asked, that no service animal had ever been given permission to ski before in Deer Valley’s history. And after extensive research, I have found no record of or reference to this type of service animal accommodation at any downhill ski resort.
This decision meant I could enjoy the last two days of my ski vacation in peace. They went off without a hitch, and I dare say Maeve had as much fun on the slopes as she does on my motorcycle. But for the disability community, this has much wider implications. It opens up a new recreational activity to a subset of service dog handlers who probably thought it would always be off-limits. And, more importantly, it demonstrates that the world can become a more disability-friendly place. There are people who will give you an audience to self-advocate, and there are institutions that will make an effort to better align their policies with the ADA.
So here’s to more empowered disabled self-advocates ― and more skiing service dogs ― in the future.
Claire Barnett, who has given a TEDx Talk on autism and employment, will begin graduate studies this fall as an MBA candidate at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business. She received her bachelor’s degree in human and organizational development, cum laude, from Vanderbilt University in May 2019, and spent her summers in college working as a White House intern in Washington. You can find Claire on Instagram at @clairetbear (personal account) and @autistic.chick (advocacy account). You can follow her service dog Maeve at @maevemakeswaves and the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation at @autismandinnovation.
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