Broken Hearted Dreamer: Invisible Disabilities, Visible Service Dogs


Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

By now, you might have seen the new furry addition to Swat in the flesh. Extremely tall and lanky, covered in black curly hair from nose to tail, Barney Desmond Chen is my new psychiatric service dog.

You might be surprised, like I was a year ago, to learn that psychiatric service dogs are a completely legitimate thing. Sure, everyone has seen guide dogs, hearing assistance dogs, perhaps even mobility dogs. All of these special animals are rigorously trained by organizations around the world to aid those with physical disabilities. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also recognizes any service dog that assists an individual with a “sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” According to ADA, the defining characteristic about service dogs is that they are trained to perform tasks directly related to their handler’s disability. It makes no exception to its protection based on what the disability is.

Despite this, the way that service dogs and their handlers are treated varies pretty dramatically based on whether the handler has a visible or invisible disability. In public settings such as restaurants and stores, employees cannot legally treat you any differently if your disability is invisible–though there have been instances of them doing so anyway, violating ADA. There are only two questions that a handler may be legally asked: 1) Is this a service dog? 2) In what ways does it assist you? That’s it.

In privately run settings, however, things are different–often for the worse. For example, when Desmond and I made our journey to Swarthmore, we flew on United Airlines. On United’s website, they explain their policy: “trained service animals are accepted in cabin for qualified individuals with a disability.”

Fair enough, except that “psychiatric assist animals” are considered in a different category even though, once again, ADA does not differentiate. For those such as myself traveling with a psychiatric service dog, the handler must provide documentation from a licensed professional that explains the need for the service animal. This documentation must be renewed every year. In addition, the handler must give a 48-hour advance notice to United’s Disability Desk every single time that they fly.

United is not the bigoted exception to the rule. Most airlines have a similar policy that requires some combination of documentation, a phone call with the handler’s therapist or psychiatrist, and/or advanced notification. You can thank the fakers–people who just strap a service dog vest onto their pets–for that. While these fakers make airline policies somewhat more understandable, “a letter from a trained health professional” is often expected when handlers with invisible disabilities apply for jobs, study abroad, or even stay at a hotel.

The important thing to underline, boldface, and italicize is that individuals with invisible disabilities are constantly having to prove that their struggle is real and valid enough for them to receive accommodations.

It’s sort of like when every adult you meet, from your aunts and uncles to the taxi driver who takes you to the airport, asks you where you are going to college, what you are majoring in, and what exactly are you planning on doing with that? Maybe it is fine to answer the first time or two. But when you have to do it over and over again, it gets tiring. This is especially the case when every single employer, airline, or school wants its own unique verification of very sensitive and private information.

I have no doubt in my mind that having Desmond is the best possible thing for my PTSD. I have slept better each night with him than I have on any other night over the past year; my anxiety and stress thresholds are higher, albeit still limited; and any anxiety or stress that I do experience is slowly calmed by the gentle giant at my side. Desmond is like an umbrella: he helps keep me dry from the storm that is always rumbling over my head. But this storm is invisible to everyone else, so when they see me wielding a 60-pound umbrella even though I am already dry, they furrow their eyebrows and demand answers and justifications and signed documents from professionals who have studied me.

There is no question that Desmond is worth all of the fuss. I just wonder how much more good he could do if I wasn’t constantly being hounded (no pun intended) to prove that I am in enough pain to deserve him.

Want more information about psychiatric service dogs, the training process, and/or living with PTSD? Check out these short, quirky videos we produced during handler training.


Featured image courtesy of Hillary Eggers. 


  1. The ADA doesn’t apply to everything. It doesn’t apply to aircrafts (only airports). Different laws apply to things like aircrafts and housing and because these are all regulated by different agencies, each has its own interpretation.

    Under the Air Carrier Access Act, all airlines are permitted to require 48 hours advanced notice and a specially worded doctor’s letter of PSD partners as a condition of travel. The vast majority of airlines do require this.

    I agree it is unfair, but it is the Department of Transportation and unscrupulous pet owners you have to blame. The airlines and SD handlers are equally victims, in a bad situation. Fakers created the problem and the DOT “fixed” it badly.

    Your program should have prepared you and taught you what is required under various federal laws, and how to avoid known pitfalls of SD ownership so that you could succeed with minimal frustration and stress.

    Nicely written post.

    • Hi Kirsten!

      Thanks for reading. Yes, you are right, various areas such as aircrafts and housing are regulated by different agencies. Still, though, from the point of view of a disabled person who has tried numerous approaches to alleviating my symptoms, it is very frustrating when there is so much bureaucracy around the one method I have found to be most effective and fast acting in regards to making me feel better.

      My training program did prepare me and teach me what is required under various laws, but I have still found it very stressful nonetheless. Maybe this is because I am more prone to stress than others (Post Traumatic *Stress* Disorder). However, considering that most of the people who are consulting disability laws and running into personal issues with their execution are disabled, it would be extremely helpful for the disabled community if disability laws were clearer and more consistent. Just for one trip, I have to consult and potentially provide documentation for compliance with three different governmental agencies. That is, in my opinion, a little over the top.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting and feel free to email me with further comments or concerns!

      Anna Livia

  2. Hi Anna Livia, We enjoyed your article and shared it to our Facebook community page. The link is provided above. Please visit to see the post. We have a post about the organization that provided Barney Desmond Chen scheduled for this afternoon. How long have you two been together? We hope the team is doing well!

  3. I’m finding this post as I’m completely overwhelmed by the discrimination Ive been facing from having an invisible illness and a service dog. For so long I was trapped, and my service dog has allowed me to feel comfortable enough to go outside again. Now, the backlash from having an invisible disease makes me a quick target for judgement and disbelief. From being told I can’t have him somewhere without question to being denied rides to having things thrown at me. I just want to hide again.

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