Local advocate brings visibility to Ohio Service Dog Awareness Week


COLUMBUS—A local activist for disability rights is shining a spotlight on accessibility issues while observing Ohio Service Dog Awareness Week.

Since state legislation passed in 2016, the last week of July has since been known as Ohio Service Dog Awareness Week. Christopher Cooley personally advocated for the legislation and was instrumental in bringing the message to the Ohio House of Representatives.

Growing up with a hearing impairment, Cooley knew that his life came with some challenges that those without disabilities can’t always see.

It was losing his vision beginning around age 17 that plunged him into uncertainty and depression. Having just learned how to drive a car, Cooley quickly found himself losing the independence he’d just begun to gain.

From there, Cooley learned how to navigate the resources available for individuals with disabilities in Ohio. His network of support eventually empowered him to become an advocate not only for himself but for other Ohioans with disabilities.

Cooley, who was once terrified of dogs, found a new lease on life when he met his first guide dog, Sam.

Cooley credits Sam, along with Pilot Dogs of Columbus, for helping him regain the independence he once felt was lost. And while standing up for disability rights has expanded Cooley’s supportive network for himself and others with hearing and visual impairments, he said that those who are uneducated about ADA laws can sometimes make entering a business with a guide dog feel like a hostile experience.

“[My sister and I] once stopped at a Valero gas station [near Columbus], and the owner got violent with me because he didn’t want my [service] dog inside,” Cooley recalled. “I said ‘it’s a service dog,’ but he got violent to where my sister had to stop him because he was going to hit me. My dog got between us to keep him away from me—didn’t growl or bark or anything. When that happened, it put me in a depression mode because I was scared. He even called 911 on me. The officer [who responded] even said, ‘I don’t know much about ADA law, I’ll have to go back to my office and educate myself,” Cooley said.

While titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) state in part that “entities must permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go,” not all business owners are knowledgeable of the law.

Individuals abusing the law who pass off regular, untrained pets as service animals also complicate the perception, said Cooley.

Cooley said that education and visibility are viable paths forward toward acceptance and access for all Ohioans, which is why he works to contribute to the Ohio Service Dog Walk — an event that corresponds with the week of awareness.

“We want to encourage [Ohio] State Representatives to get involved with our community,” Cooley said. “Helping people with disabilities to be able to have no worries, and to be independent and safe.”

This year, the walk will take place around the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on Saturday, July 23, at 10 a.m. Individuals with service dogs will join the walk in order to provide visibility to a very common aspect of life for many Ohioans, which aims to minimize stigma and provide education.

Cooley works hard to participate in events and solicit donations for groups that celebrate the independence of those living with disabilities and which educate the general public about ADA and accessibility law. He believes that education and awareness will bring about a better understanding of these issues.

And his home county is one which he hopes to see lead the way for accessibility, one business at a time.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to get them to the point that they know [the law]. They will understand the law by the time I get done with them,” Cooley added with a chuckle.

He shared there are plenty of ways for local businesses and other organizations to get involved with addressing issues of accessibility and perception.

“Just coming together and walking with us every year and helping to encourage other folks with disabilities to come out and be independent, and to encourage them to be part of the community. I want people to see us out here. I want people to see that we can be independent—we don’t always need staff or home health aids with us. We can be independent, we have our own money we can spend, and we can enjoy this community altogether,” Cooley said.

For more information about how to donate to organizations involved with Ohio Service Dog Awareness Week, contact Christopher Cooley at: [email protected].

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