Covered In Love

Covered In Love: Our Experience With Canine Companions for Independence

The application has been filled out and it sits on my desk for close to a year. It is repeatedly buried by bills and then excavated as I pay the bills and file them away. It surfaces. I ignore it. Sometimes it feels like we might be biting off more than we can chew. Just, ask anyone and they’ll agree that Aaron and I already have our hands full.

Lucy has been struggling; it’s been two years of really unpleasant behavior. There is crying in school, outbursts at home, scratching, biting, swearing and resisting transitions. We’ve come to suspect that Lucy’s cerebral palsy may be the real culprit. As we meet parents of kids that have CP they share many similar stories, debilitating anxiety, uncontrollable outbursts.

So, the application sits on my desk another day, another week, and another month.

I do a presentation in Sacramento, California. Nancy coordinates the event and takes us to lunch afterwards. Nancy’s service dog, Whisper, is by her side during the event and at lunch.

Over lunch I tell Nancy about Lucy’s fear of dogs, how every time a friend calls to invite Lucy over for the first time she asks two things,
“Mom, do they have stairs?”
“Mom, do they have a dog?”

Being in a wheelchair, if a dog jumps up on her, licks her, sniffs her, or puts their open mouth near her… she is helpless. She can’t just turn around and walk away. She can’t push a dog off. When dogs bark she flinches, she jumps.

I’m not a dog person, never have been. I secretly believe most dogs want to bite me.

But… Whisper… Whisper is just that, quiet and almost invisible! Whisper doesn’t sniff, bark, or jump. At the restaurant Whisper doesn’t give Nancy the “you’re eating and I’m not” stare. Whisper is quiet under the table and doesn’t even seem interested in dropped food. Whisper doesn’t take a potty break unless given a command. Whisper knows more than 40 commands.

Now, I’m fascinated. This seems like the perfect dog! Nancy agrees that Whisper is the perfect dog for her. They had been pre-matched through Canine Companions for Independence. I catch a glimpse, a little slice, of what having a service dog in our family might actually be like. I’m intrigued by Whisper… I actually like Whisper!

After lunch, we walk back to our car. Before leaving, I hug Nancy and say, “Thank you so much! I’m mailing in our application as soon as I get home.” Nancy encourages us to do it and she promises that we won’t regret it. I do my best to believe her.

A Team of Three
Within a few weeks of popping that application in the mail, we get a phone call from Canine Companions for Independence in Oceanside, California. They’ve reviewed our application. We’ve passed the first step of the process and they are calling to set up a phone interview!

On our phone interview we’re nervous and not quite sure how a service dog can help Lucy. We find out that since Lucy is not 18, she won’t hold the leash. This means that a service dog doesn’t free up our hands, it ties up one hand! I try to fathom pushing Lucy’s wheelchair, managing a dog AND signing to Leah. Hmmm. We find out that the dog can’t go to school with Lucy and some of her hardest times are at school. Hmmm.

The Skilled Companion team is made up of three- the dog, the recipient (Lucy) and the facilitator (myself or Aaron) and that team can be certified to go in public, on airplanes, in restaurants… anywhere really, as long as it is a team of three.

I’m still not sure what a service dog will DO for Lucy. If we are right there… and we always are, we can pick up dropped items, and we can open doors. Are we really going to ask a dog to do that? Seems superfluous. In the interview we mention Lucy’s difficulty with transitions and how even though we fought for her to attend public school, with socialization in mind, her behavior was isolating her socially.
Our interview ends. Aaron and I look at each other confused. Was that good? Was that bad?

A few weeks go by and we receive another call from Oceanside, California. Every time they call, I get emotional, confronted, excited, nervous, hopeful, my eyes fill with tears. I see the number on my phone and scream, “AAAAAHHHH!!! YOU GUYS, IT’S CCI!!!!” Everyone gathers around to see what it is they have to say. This time they say that we are invited to come for a face-to-face interview in December! We will work with dogs, learn about the next steps in the process, and share what we hope our family can gain from this new Companion.

I book the flights, car and hotel room. Our interview falls on the weekend of Leah’s 15th birthday. We make a vacation of it- and decide to squeeze in a trip to Sea World, perfect!

It’s December, we pull up to the CCI campus and my eyes fill with tears. Geez! Why am I so emotional? We unload and check in, meet the group of other hopefuls and get a tour of the campus.

The Fam

We spend part of the day in lectures. We learn the command sequence that facilitators use with the dogs and we practice the sequence and corrections on “carpet dog” not a real dog.
Then, they bring in real dogs. Aaron volunteers to go first. He loves Labradors.

Aaron at CCI

Since he goes first, I have to go second. I’m nervous, and I give the dog a correction before the dog has a chance to execute my command. I take a breath and remind myself to have realistic expectations. I get another chance and do better. I just don’t want to blow this for Lucy, if it really is an option to get a dog placed with us, with her. I praise the dog and it’s real praise, I’m SO happy that the dog actually sits when I ask it to sit.

The day ends with our face-to-face interview. In some ways it feels like we are designing our dream dog… “We would like a dog that isn’t aloof, one that will approach Lucy, since she can’t really get to the dog herself.”

It seems a tall request but I have to make it, “No barking?” We are told that is an easy request, none of the dogs bark, not even when the doorbell rings. They only bark on command. I’m baffled.

We request no excessive licking, sniffing or jumping up. This turns out to be an easy request; none of the dogs do that.

“No jumping on furniture” Done! The dogs will not get up on anything without a command telling them to do it.

I imagine the future episodes of doggy-doo tracked in the house. No, the dog won’t go to the bathroom unless you give the command, they are always on leash, so you just pick it up immediately. Really? No “landmines” tracked in from the yard?

We are now clear what the dog won’t do. But what will this dream dog do for our family? Maybe, it will be that missing piece that eases transitions? Perhaps it will become a built-in best friend? Will Lucy’s focus be on the dog rather than on her fears when we are out and about? Will people talk to Lucy about her dog, “Is that your dog?” rather than talk to me about Lucy, “Why is she in a wheelchair?” Any one of those might make a difference.

Aaron asks the final question, “Why would you place one of these amazing, highly trained animals with us? We can do all of the tasks for Lucy, I mean, we already do. We would just hate to take one of these dogs when that might mean that an adult or someone else who could really use it misses out or has to wait longer.” (We’ve already been told that the wait could be a year or longer.) The Instructor interviewing us smiles and says, “Lucy is absolutely a qualified recipient. The Skilled Companions meet a different need than a Service Dog. You aren’t taking anything away from anyone else.”

And that is it. We pack up. Say our goodbyes and watch Shamu splash around.

Lucy at Seaworld

If we pass this step we will eventually be invited to Team Training; a two-week course where we live on campus and are trained to work with the dogs. We are told that we will not be called unless there are two potential dogs pre-matched with us, that’s why the wait can be a year or more.

“AAAAHHHHH!!!!! YOU GUYS, IT’S CCI!!!!!!” I’m in the car with Lucy and Leah, headed to Lucy’s swim lessons. I turn off the radio and everyone gets quiet. “Hello?”

“Hi, this is Becky at Canine Companions, we are calling to invite your family to Team Training for two-weeks in August.”

“Really? Really? Ok…. let me check our calendar and I will get back to you.”

Sometimes I fear what my calendar has to say. The calendar shows the first week of the two is scheduled for Camp Attitude– a week long camp created for children with disabilities, in Foster, Oregon… and the second week ends with my Signing Time concert in Boston.

Ok. Family Conference!
We sit down and discuss both options and decide we should take a vote.

“All in favor of going to Camp Attitude in Oregon?
One vote.

“All in favor of CCI in California?”
Three votes.
The votes will remain anonymous;)

I call Camp Attitude and cancel our spot. I call CCI and let them know we are coming. Lucy starts crying, “I don’t want to go! I don’t even want a dog!”

“Lucy,” I say, “it’s okay, it’s okay. I know you’re nervous. I am too. Listen, we can go and if it’s not right for us, we can choose not to have a dog. That’s part of the design. We go. We learn. We make a choice. But, remember, we’ve never had a dog pre-matched to our family. We’ve never had a dog that is trained like this. If we don’t go, we won’t ever know. If we go, we can be free to make a choice based in reality, rather than a choice based in a reaction, or an assumption and fear.”

She agrees.

We pack and drive to Oceanside, CA the first week of August.

As we pull into the parking lot of the CCI Campus, I’m overcome with emotion again! Seriously?

“This is real, you guys. This is real! We are here. We are in Team Training!!!”

We park, and Lucy informs us that she is NOT coming in. “Ok,” Aaron says, “whenever you are ready.” We’re pretty sure that at some point in the next two weeks she will choose to get out of the car. We unpack and go to our dorm room. It’s bigger than we imagined. We have a private bathroom, a bed, a hospital bed and a blow-up mattress and there’s still plenty of room for Lucy to maneuver her wheelchair. Sure enough, in a matter of minutes Lucy rolls in and our girls take off to explore.

Welcome Colemans

They discover two refrigerators in the kitchen; one filled with cans of soda. They are thrilled. Aaron and I get the full report from Lucy, “Mom, there’s Fanta and root beer and Dr. Pepper and even Cherry Coke, your favorite!”

Leah discovers a library of movies on VHS. The girls are excited to watch them all. There’s Apollo 13, Big, Forrest Gump, Castaway, and more. They start an unofficial Tom Hanks movie marathon.

Lucy and Leah come back and excitedly tell us that in the training room there are 12 dog crates with pink or blue nametags. We sneak in and read the names: Topper, Huntley, Waddie, Malvern, Wilona, Talia, Kong, Janessa, Leann, Donahue, Leon… hmmm, we discuss which names we would prefer NOT to have to call out for the next 8-plus years of our lives. (Malvern and Wilona top the list) We’ll start our training in the morning. It’s 9am-4pm daily. We’ll have Sunday off.

The following day we have lectures. We practice the command sequences. We practice with carpet dog. We learn so much about dog behavior and human behavior.

Breakfast and lunch are provided almost every day. Volunteers come in and feed the eight hopeful recipients and their families, and the whole staff.

After lunch the real dogs are brought in. CUTE! CUTE! CUTE!
Really? We are pre-matched with one of these awesome dogs? We look them up and down.

Day 1 CCI

We “ooooh and ahhhhh.” Aaron and I strategize coat colors and try to figure out what color we most prefer in shedding. (We did ask if we could get a dog that doesn’t shed… they all shed.)

We are told to try not to get attached and to try not to get our hearts set on a certain dog. The instructors bring the dogs around and we meet them. We are excited and nervous. Now, we work with the dogs. Leah keeps a secret tally, tracking the dogs that Aaron and I work with. We try to sort out which ones we might be pre-matched with.

The next day we work with more dogs, Leah keeps track. There’s one dog that I fall in love with, but I do my best not to get attached. She’s cute. She’s so white! According to Leah’s tallies we’ve worked with her most. It’s Wilona. Yes, one of the names we had originally said, would not work for us, and now it didn’t matter. She was Wilona, Willow, Willy, Wilsy and Wil. We pretend not to be super excited every time we work with her. Leah and Lucy do their best to suppress grins and giggles of joy. We try not to look disappointed when we work with another dog.

The third day of Team Training is when we are officially pre-matched with a dog. Everyone arrives to class on time. We anxiously await the announcements. They start with Lucy. “Lucy Coleman, you are pre-matched with…. WILONA!” They bring Wilona over to us and hand us the leash. I’m crying and smiling. Aaron has tears in his eyes and he roughs up Wilona’s fur. Lucy grins and buries her face in Willow’s neck. Willow licks Lucy twice and sits down by our feet. Leah has happy tears streaming down her face and signs, “I can NOT believe this is happening!” True. It is unreal.

She's ours

We learn so much. Day after day we work with Wilona. She stays in our room. The first few days I watch her with an eagle eye.
Is she going to get into the garbage? Nope.
Is she going to have an accident on the floor? Nope.
I take her out to toilet hourly, just in case. Wilona sniffs the grass, and then looks at me like, “really? I just went.”
Is she going to jump up on the beds? Nope. Not unless we say, “JUMP”.
There is no barking, even when we say “SPEAK” she looks at us warily, as if to ask “are you sure?”

Day after day, night after night, she’s a perfect angel. At some point we realize that Lucy has only had one outburst in almost two weeks. We are living in a new place. We are surrounded by new people and eight dogs… and Lucy is doing great!

Lucy and Wilona

We tell Willow to JUMP up on Lucy’s bed. Lucy falls asleep with one hand on her dog. Lucy falls fast asleep and doesn’t ask us to “snuggle”. Our daughter hasn’t fallen asleep without her nightly snuggle for 12 years. To our amazement, Lucy sleeps through the night. Our daughter has not regularly slept through the night in her whole life!

Sleepy Girls

We are in class until 4pm daily, and then we head to the beach. Aaron takes photos of sunsets… Leah, Lucy and I photo-bomb his really beautiful pictures.

Sunset Plus 3

Time flies and we are coming up on our final tests and graduation day. Every day we have quizzes on what we’ve learned. We practice with the dogs in restaurants, at the harbor, the mall and K-mart.

At The Pier

Aaron walks in our room one evening to find me snuggled up on Lucy’s bed with Willow. “Now, that is something I never thought I’d see in my entire life!” he says.

We play with Wil. We wrestle her. We play fetch. We brush her fur and brush her teeth. We clean her ears. I use a Dremel to file her nails. She never bites. I relax. “Mom” Leah says cautiously one afternoon, “you are covered in dog hair!!”
“No, Leah, I am covered in LOVE!” …And I am, I’m covered in love.

On graduation day we meet the amazing family that voluntarily raised Wilona for her first year-and-a-half. They gave her the groundwork, training and love to actually fulfill the job she was born to do. Only 20-30% of the dogs born and trained for this actually get placed as Service Dogs. We have brunch with her Puppy Raisers and they give us a book with photos of Willow’s first year and a half. When we come up on stage for graduation, they tearfully pass Wilona’s leash to Lucy. We tearfully accept. Wilona is officially Lucy Coleman’s Skilled Companion.

It’s amazing how much love, time, and dedication go into each one of the Canine Companion dogs. It’s amazing how much time, devotion and training goes into each family and recipient. Canine Companions is a not-for-profit organization, privately funded by donations. We paid for the gasoline to drive from Utah to California. We bought a few dinners. We bought a crate. Everything else, was given to us, everything else; leashes, collars, food bowls, a huge bag of dog food, toys, brushes, shampoo, toothbrush, poultry flavored toothpaste, a place to stay, meals and training… given to us. It almost seems too much.

Wilona has now been with us for eight months. The difference in our entire family is ridiculous. I never could have imagined that a dog would give us so much. I think back to those early interviews, our concerns and the question of what a dog could provide for Lucy, for us. Now I know why no one could answer that… it’s because there are no words to describe it.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so hopefully here’s a glimpse that communicates at least a tiny bit of the joy, peace, and love that our family found, in what seemed the most unlikely of places, our Canine Companion, Wilona Coleman.

Looks Like Love

Wanna Play?

First Day of School

At the Hospital

In the Car
Snow Day Wilona_0039

Finding My Inspiration

For me there was one thing… one thing I really wanted to accomplish just to prove to myself that I was still alive. Sure I was married, I had kids, and I had a company, but I wanted to work toward something for me. Just for me.

It was 2003 and the conversation with my husband went like this, “Hey, Aaron. If you buy me an iPod, I’ll run a marathon.” (Silence)
“Are you serious?” he asked.
“Yeah. Why not?” I answered.

Within a matter of days I came home and found a brand new iPod on our bed. He took the bait… and I had something to shoot for, plus I had a promise to fulfill.

I need motivation. I do. I need deadlines, and registration fees, and pressure. I need accountability. I ran a 10K once, but other than that, when I started training for that marathon I had never participated in any other sporting or racing event, by choice, in my entire life. I don’t even have one of those soccer trophies that seem to come with a good American childhood.

As a kid, I hated physical education. I thought it was torturous. Really? Can’t we just skip my turn at bat, or do I have to go through striking out and total humiliation in front of my peers?

Continue reading

That Child Screaming on the Plane… is Mine

“Excuse me. How old are you?” The woman’s question broke through Lucy’s screams. We had boarded the plane, found our seats and begun doing homework, at Lucy’s request. Luce was in the window seat; I was in the middle, and Leah on the aisle. Aaron was seated a handful of rows behind us in the emergency exit row. Most planes don’t have the legroom for a guy who is 6 foot 5. I have my own complaints, like, my feet don’t reach the floor, my legs swing like a toddler, and by the time we land my knees hurt and my feet are swollen, but that’s nothing compared to flying with your knees smashed against the seat in front of you. (So I hear)

We were finishing up math, only 2 pages left of a week’s worth of homework. This was our flight home from Cancun and the last chance to wrap it up before she returned to school tomorrow. We did the first problem together. Lucy was doing the math, I was writing in her answers… and then… well, to be completely honest, I have no idea what set her off. “What makes Lucy cry and scream?” < ---that my friends is the million dollar question. Something happened… or maybe nothing happened. Someone coughed? Cleared their throat? Slammed a door? A baby cried? The wind changed? Everything. Nothing. The tirade began. Ear piercing, high pitched, screaming, that went something like this, “I HATE YOU! YOU NEVER HELP ME! YOU’RE STUPID! STUPID! YOU’RE A TERRIBLE MOMMY! YOU NEVER LISTEN TO ME! I HATE Y-OOOOOOOOU! (Repeat, non-stop… for 45 solid minutes) She started her rant before they closed the airplane door. She continued through the safety announcements and hadn’t let up by the time we were allowed to use electronic devices and were free to move about the cabin. 10,000 feet of screams. There is nothing I can say to stop her, no threat. No look. No words. My response or reaction just makes it escalate. I put on my sunglasses and my headphones and am surprised at how the music drowns out my daughter’s screams. I pop one headphone out and announce loudly, “I hope you all brought headphones!” What else can I do? Continue reading

I Still Love Oregon

Ever start writing a blog and just end up boring yourself? I’ve had 2 sitting on my desktop with no compelling reason to complete them. They’re just not good.

So, instead I am going to invite you to check out Oregon with me!

I flew in to Portland on Thursday night. Lindsey (remember her?) was flying in a few hours later, since she had a college class that she just couldn’t miss. I never fly in on the last flight of the day, because if it is cancelled, or I miss it, well, there is no Signing Time event the next day. So, I took and earlier flight and Linds took the last flight.

It’s been awhile since I traveled with Lindsey. Luckily, Lindsey was able to come along, since it is just too early to leave Lucy with a sitter. Lucy was only 2 weeks post-op.

Lucy’s surgeries went really well!

Lucy Wakes Up to a Garden of Balloons

Lucy Wakes Up to a Garden of Balloons

She had three procedures and it took 6 hours. She is very resilient.

Feeling Better

Feeling Better

For this Oregon trip, Aaron stayed home with Leah and Lucy.

While waiting for Lindsey’s flight to arrive, I knew I would have about 4 hours to kill… so I picked up a ticket to see The Killers, who were playing that very night. (Yay for me!) No, I am not afraid of going to concerts or movies by myself.
The Killers in Portland

The show was amazing. It is my goal to get Baby Signing Time to the lead singer, Brandon Flowers, he has a newborn and a toddler and I would love for them to sign with me… since my family sings along with him.

After the show, I picked up Lindsey and we dove 80 miles to Cannon Beach. We checked in and hit the sack. The bummer with driving in the middle of the night is you miss the beauty.

In the morning we met up with Debbie, whose organization brought us out there, and we had brunch at a place called Wanda’s. This was the first of many AMAZING meals we would have on this trip. I had oatmeal… oatmeal… and it knocked my socks off. I mean really, how often can you say you’ve had an amazing bowl of oatmeal? … Me neither! Though, you are more likely thinking, “You ordered oatmeal? Who orders oatmeal?” I do. Okay? I order oatmeal.

Next we visited Nehalem Elementary School. I shared a sign language story time with the Life Skills Class. Then did a Signing Time Assembly for the entire school.

It was still fairly early in the day, so Linds and I drove back to our inn and threw on our swimsuits (silly California girl!) and hopped back into our PT Cruiser and started driving the coast. We pulled over to get our toes in the sand.

Walking The Beach

Walking The Beach

Yes, I brought longsleeves

Yes, I brought longsleeves

Picking up Sand Dollars

Picking up Sand Dollars

We always ask the locals for dinner recommendations and this time we were pointed toward “The best seafood!” a restaurant called Pirate’s Cove.

So Good!

So Good!

Need I say more?

We drove back to the inn, stopping to pick wild blackberries and raspberries that seemed to run rampant everywhere we looked.

Blackberries Make Us Happy

Blackberries Make Us Happy

The following morning was the Buddy Walk at the Beach, in Seaside. The weather was perfect. The walk was just the right length.

I got to meet Lucy’s personal Fan Club, little Dru.

Dru Loves Lucy Coleman

Dru Loves Lucy Coleman

Then it was time to walk.

Walking in the Buddy Walk

Walking in the Buddy Walk

We all gathered for a photo on the stairs that lead to the beach. It felt like a “Where’s Waldo” scene, since most everyone had their Buddy Walk shirts on and I was wearing my signature orange.

Where's Waldo?

Where's Waldo?

Lucy’s buddy, Josiah and his family were there. You may have seen Josiah in “The Great Outdoors” exploring on his crutches or smiling next to Lucy. Josiah and Lucy go WAY back. Josiah’s mom, Gina, was the 77th fetal surgery for spina bifida patient and Lucy and I were the 82nd patients. While on bed rest we got to know each other and kept tabs on the progress of these special kids.

It's Always Fun to See Friends

It's Always Fun to See Friends

We all made our way to the Convention Center where my Signing Time performance would be. Before singing Caterpillar Dreams, I introduced Josiah to everyone. It was sweet to see him on the screen behind me and to see how much he has grown since we filmed those scenes.

When most everyone had left, I noticed some bumper boats for rent nearby. Lindsey and I put everything in the car and then ran down to rent bumper boats.

Bring it!

Bring it!

There was an option to rent water guns as well. At first we loved the idea, but on second thought… that water looked uncomfortably brown.

The Eye of The Tiger

The Eye of The Tiger

We packed up and decided to drive some more. The landscape was eerily familiar and we realized that this must be where they filmed the movie Goonies.

Tell Me That Rock is Not From Goonies

Tell Me That Rock is Not From Goonies

A google search later that evening confirmed that hunch. For what it’s worth Kindergarten Cop was also filmed in that area.

After that we went to the Tillamook Cheese Factory for grilled cheese sandwiches and ice cream cones.

Tillamook Cheese Factory

Tillamook Cheese Factory

We toured the factory and of course tried out the samples. My favorite? Horseradish Cheddar.
Don't Forget the Extra Cheese!

Don't Forget the Extra Cheese!

When the factory closed, we drove to Portland, since we were flying out in the morning.

I love Oregon! I know, I have said it before, but I do. That place just speaks to my soul. The greens are so green! The landscape transitions so abrupt. Who puts a beach right next to a forest?

The Coast is Calling

The Coast is Calling

I have loved traveling for the Signing Time events in Salem and Klamath last year and when I was 19, my girl friend, Jessica and I had hopped in my VW Bus and drove to Eugene on a whim.

I am trying to figure out the best way to get more of Oregon? Should we take a week or two and drive the coast this summer? Camp? Camper? Bed & Breakfast? Should we move to the coast for a month? What is the best way to get more Oregon? Should I sign up for the STP 2010 (Seattle to Portland Bike Race).

I don’t know how, and I don’t know when, and even worse I don’t know why! Something is pulling me toward Oregon.

California Girl Takes Utah Girl to Disneyland

I’m a California Girl and California Girls don’t go to Disneyland on weekends or holidays. We go to Disneyland on overcast, slight chance of rain days, in the middle of the week.

My family moved from Southern California when I was 11 years old. I am not sure that I ever really became a Utah Girl, but that’s not really the point. Once in Utah, I was struck by my peers’ conversations about Disneyland. “How many times have you been?” They were one-upping each other on the bus. “Four times” or “five times” produced dropped jaws. I kept quiet. I shook my head. Oh, those poor theme-parkless kids. They’d never believe me, even if I could add up all of those trips and produce a number for them.

Now, I have Utah Girls of my own. And I get it. Disneyland is no longer a mid-week, skip school, stay for fireworks and drive home exhausted kind of thing. It is an event. It is a… dare I say it? A long weekend kind of event, now that we live in Utah. My cute girls have no idea of the personal rules I break for them. Taking on Disneyland on a weekend? Sheesh!

Nevertheless, we do these things as parents… we do them for our children.

But… I still have an unfair advantage over the rest of you who are investing hundreds of dollars on a weekend, where your kids had better have fun, they’d better like it, and they’d better behave because it costs a small fortune just to walk through the metal detectors and finally cross the threshold to the Happiest Place on Earth.

Happiest Expensive Place on Earth

Happiest Expensive Place on Earth

Yes, it’s true. I have an unfair Disneyland advantage… I have a child in a wheelchair.


Now, if you can’t hack this conversation, click away. I’m just telling it like it is. 😉

It used to be that a wheelchair, in Disneyland, was akin to a free ticket. Not “free” free, but pretty close to it. This fancy wheelchair used to allow us to walk right up the exits of rides, wait a car or two and then ride away in complete bliss. Especially blissful when you realize how many other folks were left juggling tired children, backpacks, strollers, and $6 sodas for hours on end, often for one short spin on Dumbo.

Well, things have changed a bit at Disneyland. Each time they update a ride, they also manage to bring it up to code. California Adventure, for example is so stinking accessible, we get to wait in their wheelchair-width mazes just like everyone else. Don’t waste your time trying to get an accessibility pass in California Adventure, go to Disneyland for it.

When Lucy and I went to Disneyland, we went with our friends Emily and Millie. You might recognize Millie as the little cherub on the cover of Baby Signing Time.

I was already in California. Emily, Millie and Lucy flew in together and met me there. Lucy and Millie held hands throughout the entire flight!

Holding Hands on The Plane

Holding Hands on The Plane

They arrived and we immediately went to the poolside restaurant.

California Girls

California Girls

Lucy ordered jumbo shrimp cocktail, her favorite.

Who You Calling Shrimp?

Who You Calling Shrimp?

I was performing the following day, so they came along to watch.

Orange shoes? Check! Colored Fingers? Check!

Orange shoes? Check! Colored Fingers? Check!

Emily spotted Scott Baio, she said that she had always wished he could baby sit her… (“Charles in Charge” reference folks) Lucy, in the background, was unimpressed.

Emily and Scott

Emily and Scott

The booth located right behind our Signing Time spot was a company called Cade Christian. Here’s the funny thing. Each year that I have presented at the Baby Celebration Los Angeles, I have drawn a good sized crowd of Signing Time Families. This crowd (Yeah, you guys) stays after and creates a substantial line for over an hour, waiting to take a photo, get an autograph and buy products. And each year some of the neighboring vendors have complained about the big, long line of parents and children standing beside their booths. (I’m not kidding.)

So, this year. I gave the Cade Christian folks a heads-up of what was to come and they said, “Oh we heard about that, so we requested to be right near your booth. They thanked me for bringing so many families to the event. And then they hooked the little girlies up with hats and sent one for Leah as well. Then Em and I bought some for ourselves.

Hat to Hat

Hat to Hat

Next stop, In-N-Out, on our way to Anaheim.



We arrived at Disneyland and checked in at City Hall to get our “perma-handi-fastpass” <---- not what it's really called, just what it does. Now, if you have just a regular kid in a wheelchair, maybe a broken bone or something, you don’t get much priority. If you have a child in a wheelchair who might have a difficult time waiting in long lines you get a little upgrade. They gave us the Super-Duper-Upgrade <---- not what it's called, just what it does- when they realized that Emily and I not only had Lucy and her wheels, but that little Millie is deaf. And we were off! We let Lucy lead the way. It was one of the few times I felt uninvested. If she wanted to ride "Dumbo" 35 times in the next 48 hours, so be it. This was about her. And by the way I stopped counting after we rode "Dumbo" 8 times. [caption id="attachment_1872" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Dumbo at Night"]Dumbo at Night[/caption]

So Much Fun She Can't Even Open Her Eyes

So Much Fun She Can't Even Open Her Eyes

Can We Ride This One Again?

Can We Ride This One Again?

So, here are some things I didn’t know before this Disney trip.

“It’s A Small World” has been updated, and I don’t just mean the inside. The boats are all new and they have a special, wheelchair ready boat! Lucy was the queen of the world. I also stopped counting once we had ridden “Small World” 8 times.

A Small Accessible World

A Small Accessible World

After All!

After All!

If you have a child with special needs and you need a place to handle toileting, go to the First Aid Station (behind the hand-dipped corndog cart and past the Carnation Baby Care Center) They have cots, where you can lie your child down to change them in a private room with a sink and a toilet. They also have cold drinking water for free. They are cold water pushers. You almost can’t escape without cold water coming with you. This was Mecca! You have no idea how much time I spend scouting inconspicuous locations to do a quick-change for my 9 year old.

In the very accessible California Adventure, the newest ride “Toy Story Midway Mania” has wide lanes, so we got to wait with everyone else, BUT they have one car that will accommodate a wheelchair. We didn’t use it the first time, because they asked if we could transfer. I said, “Yes,” because we can transfer, but seriously that was the worst experience ever! The cars make hard lefts and hard rights with no warning. You are supposed to be shooting, but it doesn’t go so well when you are hanging on to your child who cannot sit independently. It was physically exhausting and our score was terrible! 😉 When we unloaded I let the guys running the thing know that “Can you transfer?” was not an adequate pre-requisite. I suggested they ask, “Can your child sit unassisted?” I am sure they were enthralled to hear my quick explanation of trunk control and head control and how Lucy may have just sustained whiplash and how I may have thrown out my back trying to keep her from getting her bell rung on the side of the car.

But… then they offered their fancy-schmancy-wheelchair ready car and that was a blast! Lucy sat in her wheelchair in the car and they strapped her wheels down. To make up for the first ride, they let us go two more times without waiting. But I think that was because it was easier to just let us keep riding than to maneuver that fancy-schmancy thing on and off the track. Lucy could shoot her own gun by bopping a button on top or yanking on a cord. I totally crushed her score though.

In Her Very Own Wheelchair

In Her Very Own Wheelchair

The parades were great. Lucy is not of fan of anything in costume, especially bigger than life costumes. She even hates Hopkins at our Signing Time shows… Hopkins!
Talking Cars are Non-threatening

Talking Cars are Non-threatening

Don't Stand, Don't Stand So

Don't Stand, Don't Stand So

Sully is Just Too Big

Sully is Just Too Big

And of course we got to relive memories of the infamous submarine experience in Mexico, but this time with the promise of Nemo below. And this time I wasn’t worried.

Don't worry. I've got this!

Don't worry. I've got this!

There Are Clown Fish in The Water

There Are Clown Fish in The Water

For those who cannot maneuver through the tight spiral staircase, there is another option. There’s a room that shows a movie of what you see under water. We tried both and we all agreed that being in the sub was much more fun.

Lucy really wanted to see Ariel, so we stopped by the restaurant Ariel’s Grotto on the first day. We asked about reservations for dinner the following day and were told by the hostess that reservations were not necessary. But, when we arrived for dinner the following day, all of the seatings were filled! Lucy was bummed. I explained what we were told the day before and today’s hostess said, “Reservations are not necessary, but they are recommended.” If your kiddo is an Ariel fan, don’t make this same mistake. Make a reservation.

The moral of the story is 1 in 1000 kids are born with spina bifida- if you are lucky enough to get one, then you are also lucky enough to park in the front row at Costco, even during the holidays. You also get to ride Dumbo and Small World countless times without waiting!

If ever you get stuck going to Disneyland on a busy holiday weekend, Lucy and I are available for rent.