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Canine Crusade : Epileptic Fights for Rights for the Dog That Serves Him

Times Staff Writer

He may have won an award last month for his crusade to educate people about the rights of disabled people with service dogs, but for James Maaske, one all-too-common confrontation made it clear that his battle is far from over.

The day before he was to accept a St. Francis of Assisi commendation from Mayor Tom Bradley, Maaske and his golden retriever-Labrador, Billie, decided to take a dry run from his apartment in Palms to downtown via their main source of transportation, an RTD bus.

Cites Civil Rights

“The bus driver refused to allow me aboard,” said Maaske, 43, a disabled epileptic who is unable to drive because of his susceptibility to seizures. “He said no dogs allowed except for Seeing Eye dogs.”

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The driver turned off his engine and refused to look at the special I.D. card issued by the Los Angeles County Transit Operators Assn. specifically to prevent this problem, or Maaske’s copy of the 6-year-old state law that gives service dogs for the physically disabled and signal alert dogs for the hearing impaired the same rights as guide dogs: access to all public places.

“He said he’s been a bus driver for 10 years and he knew the law,” said Maaske, his voice choked with emotion. “People on the bus got angry at me (for delaying the bus). But I said: ‘I refuse to get off the bus because it’s a violation of my civil rights.’ I felt like the old lady back in Alabama (Rosa Parks) who refused to get in the back of the bus.”

Five minutes later, the driver relented and continued on his route with Maaske and Billie aboard.

Maaske said that even though it has been six years since the state Legislature passed the law giving equal access rights to people with service dogs, encounters such as these still occur frequently.

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So frequently that wherever Maaske goes, he carries a half-inch-thick packet of laws, identification, legal correspondence and newspaper articles to educate those who try to deny him his rights. He also carries a microcassette recorder that he flips on every time he boards a bus to record any possible dispute he has with the driver, he said.

The biggest problem is that he does not appear handicapped, said Maaske, who is struck about a dozen times a month by a type of epileptic seizure called a “complex partial seizure.”

Watched by Dog

Such seizures are characterized by disorientation, a glazed look in the eyes and combativeness if aggravated or approached suddenly.

When a seizure strikes, his dog, Billie, watches him very carefully and keeps him away from trouble, he said. If Maaske passes out, Billie keeps people away from him by barking and pushing with his paws and tries to revive him by licking his face.

“People think automatically that if you look normal you are normal,” he said. Maaske, medium-tall, his gray hair neatly combed, appears normal except for his difficulty in pronouncing certain words and an irritability caused by his medication.

“I’ve been told by police that I don’t look handicapped so I can’t be handicapped,” he said, speaking in short, often anger-tinged bursts. “They think, ‘Hey, he doesn’t look disabled; therefore he doesn’t need the dog.’ ”

If he has a seizure in public without his dog, “I’m vulnerable prey,” he said.

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Marie Ormsby, director of information and referral for the Epilepsy Foundation of America, said it is not common for epileptics to use service dogs. “I haven’t come across any information of anyone else using this training or using a dog in this manner,” she said.

Can’t Anticipate

“There are usually not warning signs before a seizure, so the dog would not be as helpful (to an epileptic person) as they would to a hearing-impaired person or . . . a blind person,” Ormsby said, explaining that if a dog could detect a seizure coming, it could alert its owner to get to a safe place before it strikes.

Maaske began using a service dog more or less accidentally when he found his first dog, Agee, in a park in Pasadena.

One morning he woke up and the dog was staring at him. Agee began following him all around his apartment. At first he yelled at the dog to stop bothering him. Then he noticed that he had torn his bed sheets out in the night and that his equilibrium was a little off. The dog was trying to tell him he had been having seizures.

Once he passed out in public, and when he awoke, the dog was lying on top of him.

Maaske had never heard of a service dog before. He thought his situation was unique. “I thought it was a blessing out of the sky,” he said.

It was the discrimination of restaurateurs, storekeepers and bus drivers against Agee that prompted him to research the rights of service dogs and their owners. Since then, he has vigorously lobbied for those rights and has become something of an expert on the subject.

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Special License Tag

Two years ago, Maaske was instrumental in getting the city of Los Angeles to start issuing a special license tag identifying signal and service dogs, said Robert I. Rush, general manager of the city Animal Regulation Department.

“To try to stand for an issue, in spite of the animosity you create, you have to be a special person to do that,” Rush said. “You’re basically alone out there, and to stand in for (the benefit) of a whole bunch of people is a pretty significant achievement.”

Maaske has filed lawsuits against Crown Books, Thrifty Drugs and Marriott Corp., the owner of Bob’s Big Boy restaurants, after his dog was denied access to the stores or restaurants, he said.

Crown settled the suit out of court. The suits against Thrifty and Marriott are pending, he said.

Maaske’s persistence in standing up for his rights has helped state Sen. Milton Marks (D-San Francisco), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Rights of the Disabled, pass key legislation on rights for service and signal dogs, said Juli Winesuff-Kauffman, a consultant to the committee.

Bill Mandates Study

Senate Bill 2229, for example, was signed by Gov. George Deukmejian last month and requires the state Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind to conduct a study of licensing, certification, discrimination and other issues relating to signal and service dogs, she said.

“Every time we need a case example or another fact, we call James,” she said. “A lot of people view him as a leader in this (issue).”

Maaske’s roommate, Nick Pietroforte, said others have confirmed Winesuff-Kauffman’s assessment.

“Lawyers have asked him, ‘Why don’t you be a paralegal?’ ” Pietroforte said. “One law firm even asked him to research and write a letter to a housing development in Costa Mesa about equal housing rights for disabled people and service dogs.”

Maaske, who was a textile merchandising executive before his epilepsy worsened, still uses his eye for color to purchase artwork, he said. But nowadays his love for paintings, drawings and literature must be contained within the framework of a $780-a-month Social Security check.

Keeping a dog is expensive too, but Maaske said he could not live without one.

Will to Live

He credits his dogs with giving him the will to continue struggling for his rights and simply continuing his day-to-day life.

Billie, he said, “helps me have a reason for waking up in the morning. If it weren’t for him, I could stay in bed for a week. If it weren’t for him, I would be isolated.”

The dog also prevents stress-induced seizures by listening to Maaske when he is angry, he said. “He’s the one person, If I get upset, I can talk to and he will lower my blood pressure. I don’t know how many seizures this guy has stopped,” he said, cradling Billie’s head in his hands.

“So, when they object to the dog, they object to me in a discriminatory manner because I am handicapped,” Maaske said.


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