Service Animals And Laboratory Access: Who Decides? : Short Wave Joey Ramp's service dog, Sampson, is with her at all times, even when she has to work in a laboratory. It wasn't always easy to have him at her side. Joey tells us why she's trying to help more service animals and their handlers work in laboratory settings.

We first read about Joey in The Scientist. See pictures of Joey and her service dog Sampson here, and learn more about the work she does with service animals and their handlers here.

Follow Sampson on Twitter @sampson_dog and host Maddie Sofia @maddie_sofia. Email the show at

Service Animals In The Lab: Who Decides?

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


SOFIA: So if you're a scientist - say, a biologist or a chemist - and you have to work in a lab, you're super familiar with the term PPE.

JOEY RAMP: Personal protective equipment, which is PPE, is outer garments, goggles, boots and gloves.

SOFIA: That's Joey Ramp. She works at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And yeah, basically anybody who sets foot in a lab needs some form of PPE...

RAMP: Sam, here.

SOFIA: Even if you have...

RAMP: Come.

SOFIA: ...Four feet.


RAMP: Come here.


SOFIA: See, Joey has a service dog...

RAMP: Can you hear him?

SOFIA: I can hear a little, like, grunt (laughter).


RAMP: OK. He was getting up. All right, here we go.


SOFIA: Oh, there he is. (Laughter).

RAMP: (Laughter).

SOFIA: Sampson, a golden retriever, is trained not to bark. And he's a very good boy. When he's in the lab with Joey, he wears goggles...

RAMP: Worn by military K-9 and by police K-9 and law enforcement.

SOFIA: He wears rubber bottom boots on each paw.

RAMP: And he also wears a lab coat underneath his harness. And that keeps him safe.

SOFIA: Sampson, in turn, keeps Joey safe in the lab and out. Years ago, Joey suffered a traumatic brain injury. She also has PTSD. Sampson senses when she's in a stressful situation that could trigger her PTSD. He picks things up 'cause she can't bend over that well, and he helps her balance and brace when she's moving around.

RAMP: It's a cliche to say that a dog saved my life, but a service dog really does that every single day.

SOFIA: But there was a time when Joey was told that she couldn't have her dog with her, at least not if she also wanted to be in the lab.

RAMP: They immediately said - oh, my gosh, you can't possibly bring a service dog into this environment. It's too dangerous. So sadly, there are a lot of science faculty that are reluctant to allow anyone with a disability into STEM or science. And when you have a service dog, that makes it an even bigger problem. From the moment you walk in, you have a service dog. It's very visible. It's very different. And they have the power to say no.

SOFIA: This episode - why Joey is trying to change that and why it's not just an uphill battle for her but for a STEM workforce striving to be more inclusive.

I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


SOFIA: Quick warning here - there is a very brief mention of suicide in this episode.

OK. So we first learned about Joey from a great profile of her in The Scientist magazine. And one of the most amazing parts about Joey's story is that she came to science later in life. The accident that resulted in her needing a service dog is where that story begins.

RAMP: Well, it was on February 14, 2006, and I was training some horses for polo horses. It was an extremely windy day, and a trailer door swung in and startled the horse I was on. And unfortunately, we went down. And my head hit first. I ended up with 23 broken bones, including fractured vertebrae and fractured facial bones and a traumatic brain injury.


SOFIA: Two years and many surgeries later, Joey's body had recovered in a lot of ways. But the extent of her brain injury was just starting to become clear.

RAMP: And after a while, I started declining cognitively, emotionally. I couldn't process information. I was losing language skills. I was completely unable to be in environmental stimuli of any kind in social environments, anything loud - and started isolating.


SOFIA: This was part traumatic brain injury and part PTSD. Joey became increasingly depressed. She eventually lost her job. She says she didn't leave her house for three years.

RAMP: So I decided one day I was going to end my life. And I sat down. Within seconds - quite literally within seconds of ending my life and I saw the picture of a dog - a golden retriever on the front of a book sitting on the bottom - on the floor of my office. And I started reading that book, and it was about a service dog who had helped a veteran with PTSD. And through reading that book, I thought - well, gosh, you know, maybe there's some hope for me. And I ended up getting up off the floor of my office and deciding I was going to go into neuroscience and figure out what was happening in my brain 'cause no one else could.

SOFIA: Cut to today - Joey's graduated with a biocognitive neuroscience degree, and she has her sights set on a Ph.D. It's a journey she started in 2012, when she began at a two-year community college in Illinois named Parkland College. At that school, it took a while, but Joey says a really helpful disability office made it possible for her to have her dog in a chemistry lab. But when it came time for more advanced courses at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the process was a lot more stressful.


SOFIA: The school had questions like - what if the dog got in the way? - to which Joey would say...

RAMP: Service dogs are highly trained animals, and they can down-stay. They're very comfortable waiting under a bench beside the handler or even in a corner.

SOFIA: Another concern - allergies, or what if somebody in the lab is afraid of dogs?

RAMP: Allergies and fear are covered under ADA, and that is not a valid reason to deny a service dog access to anywhere.

SOFIA: ADA - that's the Americans with Disabilities Act.

RAMP: So it's easy to separate students or separate employees to make sure that everyone's comfortable but you're still accommodating the service dog and their handler.

SOFIA: And then as we covered, when it comes to lab chemicals and the safety of the dog itself...

RAMP: Wearing the boots, wearing the appropriate PPE as well as placement would be big factors.

SOFIA: But who decides whether all these different factors add up to a safe environment for everybody? It turns out there's no official universal protocol or even guidelines for answering these questions. So it's up to individuals at the university to decide whether a service animal is allowed into a lab or not.

RAMP: It took many, many, many, many, many emails to deans, assistant deans, safety compliance people - meetings upon meetings, to the point where I ended up having to withdraw from the class prior to it starting because we didn't have accommodations in place.

SOFIA: Eventually, after almost two years, Joey got things straightened out and Sampson could be with her everywhere. But doing all that work while also just trying to be a student, that sounds exhausting.

RAMP: It is exhausting. It has consistently been exhausting. As a student, I should be coming to college to learn and focusing on attending my classes. But I spent a good portion of my time meeting with professors, meeting with administrators. Every single semester, I started over.


SOFIA: Which raises the question - what if you're not Joey Ramp? What if you're not an absolutely determined woman in her 50s who had jumped through all these bureaucratic hoops at one school already and kind of knew the ropes? What if instead you're 17 or 18 years old, just trying to figure out if you're even interested in science in the first place?

RAMP: One student I know of who was in their last semester of college with a 3.96 GPA, they were asked to leave the laboratory class and told they couldn't return because they had their service animal. And that student not only dropped out of that class but dropped out of their entire college. I know other students who will start in, you know, their first two semester or first two years into a science degree and then be faced with resistance and then told that they needed to change their major. I have hours of these stories.

SOFIA: This is why, in addition to her work as a scientist, Joey spends time working as a mediator between colleges and students with service animals, trying to navigate them through the process of figuring out what works for everyone. But that work is riddled with challenges.

ROBIN JONES: Well, I think that a lot goes to the culture of the organization and what kind of welcoming policies do they have. You know...

SOFIA: Robin Jones is the director of the Great Lakes ADA Center.

JONES: Under the ADA's regulations for service animals, service animals have a right to be anywhere that a human is unless an entity can demonstrate that there would be some either direct threat or fundamental alteration in the program or activity, you know, with the presence of the service animal. So...

SOFIA: Joey would argue that most general biology and chemistry labs wouldn't be fundamentally altered by the presence of a service dog. But it's also fair to say that there's some types of labs that might not be OK for service animals, like the ones where each human needs their own sealed suit and ventilator just to be there. And there's very little known about how the presence of a service dog might affect a lab doing work with rats or mice. That's something that Joey's actually trying to study, by the way. In any case, it basically comes down to the judgment of a single person in charge.

JONES: It does put the individual at the disadvantage of being at the - I don't want to say whim, but it is - of whoever is running that lab and making those decisions and how informed they are.

SOFIA: We should say, it's not like this is super easy for employers. For privacy reasons, the law limits what they can ask about service animals. And like we said, there are no federal guidelines out there for how to accommodate them and their handlers in labs, which means even if you're the type of boss who's inclined to be accommodating, you might not know where to start. And Robin says that lack of information can influence decision-making.

JONES: So much of this has to do with just awareness - 'cause once people become aware, they have those aha moments about - well, this isn't as hard as we thought it was going to be. You know?

SOFIA: Yeah.

JONES: But when you don't know something and you haven't had exposure to it, you know, you tend to stick to your guns.

RAMP: Absolutely. I think that there is a lack of public education and awareness on the training that a service dog goes through. In addition, unfortunately, there's the high prevalence of the fake service dogs out there here...

SOFIA: Yeah.

RAMP: ...People claiming that their pet is a service animal. And that's causing problems not only for businesses and administration in universities but also for legitimate service dog handlers and those who really need their assistance.


SOFIA: For Joey, this is a diversity issue, and diversity is something big science organizations talk about all the time. Here's some of the data I could find. In a survey of recent graduates with health, science and engineering bachelor's degrees, only 5% of people employed in those fields were people living with disabilities. And people living with disabilities make up only 8% of scientists under 50 years old.

But to be fair, this is an issue for all kinds of occupations. And compared to the percentage of folks with disabilities that make up the general workforce, these numbers are actually not that bad. So obviously, there's room for improvement pretty much across the board. And Joey thinks, until then, STEM is missing out on some pretty talented people.

RAMP: I think the thing I really want people to understand is that these students need the opportunities - the same opportunities and equal access to laboratories so that they can move on in STEM fields, where we need this population of people with their creative ideas and the way that they challenge life every day and overcome different types of adversity. And they just move forward.

We need these people. They're strong people. They're intelligent people. And we're excluding them.


SOFIA: Joey Ramp. In our episode notes, you can find more info on Joey's work with other service animals and their handlers, the link to the Scientist magazine feature that we mentioned and a link to, which has pictures of Sampson in his PPE.

This episode was produced by Brent Baughman, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Emily Vaughn. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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