Innersight, a local advocacy group for disabled individuals, is pushing for schools and other organizations that train guide dogs to license the work they do.
The group’s executive director, Frank Perino, says the lack of licensing leaves disabled individuals who are looking to obtain a guide dog with little to no rights during the application process.
Perino, 75, a Brooklyn native who now resides in Sayville, has been blind his entire life. He got his first guide dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., when he was 18 years old. When the guide dog died, Perino was unable to get a replacement. So in the decades that followed, he trained his own guide dogs.
There are difficulties with taking this particular route, though. Individuals who train their own guide dogs, Perino said, are often not eligible to receive various medical services in the respective field.
In regards to the application process, Perino takes issue with how easily organizations like the one he received his first guide dog from can deny applicants. He estimates that thousands of people are denied every day throughout the county. Perino also claims that, due to the lack of licensing, the official number of individuals who are denied guide dogs within a given state or nationwide cannot be made public.
A South Shore resident, who didn’t wish to be named, said she has been denied by multiple organizations in the 15 or so years since she began losing her eyesight. The applicant came close to getting a guide dog through a Michigan-based organization some years ago, but the animal was pulled from her shortly before being assigned because it “wasn’t a good fit.”
She noted that it can take up to two years to train a guide dog and that the denials have largely discouraged her from applying or reapplying to other facilities in the future.
Perino says it costs between $50,000 and $100,000 for the training facilities, which are largely nonprofit, to train the animal. He also said it’s not uncommon for an applicant to not know whether an animal is being trained while they are on a waiting list, which can last from nine months to a year.
Because the training facilities are not licensed, or more specifically, do not provide a case number to applicants, Perino says it’s impossible to file a complaint or seek additional answers about denials through the Department of Consumer Affairs or similar agencies. “We should be protected by the law,” he said, adding that his organization “just wants to help [applicants] get a fair chance” when it comes to getting a guide dog.
Perino recently brought the issue to New York State Sen. Phil Boyle’s (R-Bay Shore) attention.
“I think it’s important that we have licensing for a number of areas and I think guide dogs are one of them,” Boyle said, noting the amount of money, time and training that goes into preparing a guide dog. “I, of course, give these [trainers] credit, but some are not as honest as others.”
The senator says he plans on drafting legislation, with Perino, regarding the licensing of guide dog training facilities once sessions begin again in January. Perino hopes that if some type of legislation is passed on the state level, perhaps someone else can take it to the federal level, which could impact the rest of the country.
Sarah Birman, the national director of training and client services for Canine Companions for Independence, explained that many assistance dog programs are accredited through standards-setting coalitions like Assistance Dogs International and the International Guide Dog Federation.
“However, there is no federally or internationally recognized set of standards beyond this self-regulation within the industry,” Birman said. “This topic is highly complex, and any type of standards or licensing process would need to be compliant with existing legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, and address questions of enforcement and funding for proposed regulatory processes.”
Perino has collected over 76,000 signatures over the last couple of years for a petition in support of his cause. The signatures come from all over the world. Perino also noted a separate petition, which he is not affiliated with, that has about 300,000 signatures and is addressed to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. The petition takes issue with the VA not granting guide dogs to veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We’re not trying to change the system,” Perino said. “We’re trying to update the system. It hasn’t been updated in 100 years.”