Woman’s Best Friend
“I remember my friend Valeria, who is in a chair and has a service dog, kept saying, ‘Oh just wait until you have a dog and you go out on the street — you’re going to feel so confident.’ Those words didn’t really mean anything to me and I just didn’t get it,” says Schirmer.
Then she got Z-Dog and her friend’s advice made sense.
“Before I got her, I had a lot of little anxieties when I went out — people staring at you, feeling more vulnerable because of the chair — I think it was making me feel stressed out. Somehow, she just eliminated that for me. I feel invisible to the eyes when I’m with her. I feel safer. It’s really hard to describe, but she gives me a feeling of comfort.”
In addition to the newfound confidence, Schirmer noticed that strangers didn’t ask as many inappropriate and awkward questions about her disability.
“People started asking me about the dog instead,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, your dog’s so cute, can I pet it, what’s her name?’”
Schirmer says it took time to build her relationship with Z-Dog, but once the two understood each other she was blown away by her companion’s skills.
“She’s so smart,” says Schirmer. “Even if I’m not actually having her do a task for me, she knows when I’m there with her and I’m engaged with her. She knows when I need her the most. Sometimes when a person is around, it will take her a couple of minutes to pick something up for me because she’s like, no, you don’t really need my help, they can do it. But then when we’re travelling, just she and I, she’s a beast. She is ready. She trots beside me and she’s all proud. It’s obvious she loves her job.”
With the assistance and confidence provided by Z-Dog, Schirmer has gotten back to enjoying social situations and living her life. After a series of unsuccessful Tinder dates, she finally matched with a man she connected with at the end of 2015. The only problem? He lived in Virginia and she lived in California.
“I remember before I was going back to California I was like, all right, well, I guess this is it. I just sort of assumed that it was going to be over,” she says. “I think a lot of that was based on just having dated noncommittal men in the past. He said, ‘No, I want you to be my girlfriend.’”
“I was really surprised by that, and thought that’s a good sign, I’m going to give it a shot. A guy that’s not afraid to date a girl in a wheelchair 2,000 miles away? I’m going to go for it.”
They settled on taking turns making monthly cross-country trips and did so for a year. “Eventually it just got to the point where one of us had to move and it made sense for me,” says Schirmer. “I have a job where I can work remotely and my parents live in Virginia, and it’s home, so I came back.”
The relationship deepened, they got engaged, and bought a house together. They are set to get married this summer.
Schirmer thinks the fact that she and her fiancé both had overcome traumatic situations helped serve a common ground to bring them together. “Something about our characters was drawn together, how we grew because of what we went through. I really feel like that was part of it,” she says. “Ours was definitely a love that grew.”
Schirmer worries that the proliferation of uncertified and illegitimate service and emotional support animals is creating obstacles for people who rely on trained service animals. “It’s a real problem. There needs to be a governing body that is backed legally to give out some kind of certification.”
“My fiancé and I drove from Washington, D.C., to New York City for a photoshoot and didn’t get there until 1 o’clock in the morning. We got to the front desk and the guy checking us in would not let me check in because of my dog. I explained that it was a service dog, it’s not a regular dog or a pet, and I’m protected under the law. He wouldn’t have it. I have it printed out on an ID card and he wouldn’t even look it. I was so mad. He turned us away at 1 a.m.
“I asked him, ‘What would you do if I was here alone, like without my fiancé? What would I do right now? There are no accessible taxis at 1 in the morning in Brooklyn.’
“We eventually found a different hotel, but we didn’t get to check in until 3 a.m. It makes me wonder if fake service animals give real service dogs a bad rap.”
Can’t Live Without:
My Spinergy ZX-1 power add-on is so compact and sturdy that it makes traveling easy. I liked it so much I went to work for the company.
I’ve had great luck hiring short-term caregivers from agencies in cities I’m visiting. It allows me to travel by myself.
Why I Joined United Spinal:
Being involved with other people with spinal injuries is important to me. I created a network called DMV (DC Maryland Virginia Wheelchair Alliance). It has about 170 people, and it’s nice knowing it has been helpful for some people.