Air Force veteran Chuck McGuirk and his service dog Maddie go everywhere together.
But they might not be able to when he enters Schenectady County Community College's Culinary Arts program in September.
There’s a question over whether Maddie will be allowed in the kitchen classrooms with McGuirk.
“A service dog is a bridge, not a barrier,” said Joni Bonilla, veteran advocate and founder of Operation at Ease, an organization that pairs rescue dogs with veterans with PTSD. McGuirk trained Maddie to be a service dog a few years ago and came to Operation at Ease for further training earlier this year.
After serving in the Air Force for 11 years, McGuirk was diagnosed with PTSD. Activities such as going to the movies, going to work, and sometimes even leaving his home in East Greenbush became difficult. Maddie helped to ease his panic attacks and general anxiety, making it possible for him to do things like take his four young kids camping or to the park.
“I do this for a living and I still can’t believe how much [Maddie] helps,” Bonilla said.
Earlier this year, McGuirk decided to pursue a lifelong dream: go to culinary school and open a restaurant. He wasn’t able to go right out of high school, but now and with Maddie, he knew he finally could.
He was accepted into SCCC’s culinary arts program and requested a tour of the kitchen and campus so he could start getting Maddie comfortable with the place. He knew he might also have to work on a few new commands, depending on the set-up. The staff was accepting of the dog during the tour.
Afterward, however, McGuirk was told by the administration that they still had to come to a decision regarding Maddie and whether to allow her into the kitchens, saying they were concerned with following New York State Department of Health codes.
Last week, in response to inquiries by The Gazette, the college put out a statement, saying that "Schenectady County Community College supports all individuals with disabilities and works to foster an inclusive environment that is accessible and welcoming for all students and employees. School administrators are working closely with the student and the Department of Health to identify potential solutions."
Update 9/2/18: SCCC finds solution to accommodate veteran's service dog
Last week, McGuirk was told by the college's administration that Maddie would not be allowed in the kitchen, and according to Bonilla, as of Friday that had not changed.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are allowed to go where the public is normally permitted, including state and local government premises, as well as businesses and nonprofit organizations. The only exception listed is sterile hospital areas (such as surgical rooms). The law does not address specifically whether service animals can be present in kitchen spaces. However, because it is a federal law, it overrides both state and local health codes, said Bonilla.
Shortly after McGuirk’s kitchen tour, he was also contacted by the college's disabilities office, with a note saying he wouldn't be allowed to have Maddie in the kitchen. It was suggested that instead she be put in a crate in the hallway.
McGuirk, however, says this isn't an acceptable solution. Maddie, he says, is as necessary as any other piece of medical equipment. He was hoping to crate her in the kitchen.
Beyond the dilemma of whether or not Maddie can be in the kitchen, there’s also been some back and forth about whether or not the college recognizes Maddie as a service dog, Bonilla said.
In an email to McGuirk, the administration said that because he failed to tell the college what services Maddie performed, they would not recognize her as a service dog, though they would allow the dog on campus, excluding the kitchen.
McGuirk followed up via email and explained that Maddie is a “psychiatric service dog trained to perform tasks such as crowd buffering and panic attack alert.”
Bonilla said the back and forth shouldn’t have had to happen in the first place.
“People with invisible disabilities don’t owe anyone an explanation,” Bonilla said.
McGuirk plans to attend the college, but with classes set to start in early September, there's only a short window of time for this to be sorted out. As McGuirk said, he may be the first but he won't be the last.
"There's more of us," McGuirk said.