Voice of the Leader Dog Community: Moira Shea

Moira sits smiling at the camera. Her long hair is down and she is wearing a black sleeveless top. Seated next to her is a yellow lab with its mouth slightly open as though smiling.

Hello there, my name is Moira Shea and I have been invited to share some of my life lessons with you. I live in Washington DC with my husband and three Leader Dogs. My current Leader Dog, Declan, is a male yellow Lab. My retired Leader Dog is a feisty golden retriever named Finnegan. Then we have Miss Asia, a career changed Leader Dog who we got to keep Finnegan company.

I have Usher Syndrome the most common cause of genetic Deaf-Blindness. With my one hearing aid and cochlear implant and Declan, I live what I consider to be a great life.

My message to my community is to push back on barriers.

Challenge yourself, I promise if you do, you will gain more independence. I was amazed how liberating it was when 27 years ago I got my first Leader Dog, Beau.

No longer did I bump into people and trip over the dishwasher, people realized that I had low vision. After Beau, I had Owen, who helped me to go from low vision to total blindness. I think Owen knew I was losing my final vision and so he took more initiative in guiding me. After Owen, I got Finnegan who loves to travel and has been to 8 countries. Now I have Declan, a calm dog in this time of pandemic.

I will share three life experiences with you in which I broke down barriers only to become more liberated from discrimination that blindness can cause.

Part 1 of 3

A woman with black hair just above her shoulders sitting on a ledge in front of the U.S. Capitol building holding a leash resting across her lap which is attached to the collar of a yellow Labrador retriever lying on the ledge next to her.I am retired from 35 years working for the federal government. I have worked for various agencies. When I was working for the Department of Energy, I applied for a Brookings Institute fellowship to work on Capitol Hill. To my great surprise, I was accepted.

This was a one-year fellowship with the first week being classes to familiarize us with the workings of Capitol Hill. Afterward we were to find our own assignment. This made me very nervous as it was the first time I would be looking for an assignment with a guide dog in tow. In previous job interviews I did not have a cane or guide dog and I did not disclose my vision issue as I was fearful of discrimination.

The week after our classes I started my search for an assignment. This was a series of cold calls. I scheduled a series of interviews and then Beau and I would go for the meetings. We were not having any luck.

One day I was in the elevator and started to chat with a gentleman. Not knowing where he worked, I gave him my five-minute elevator talk. Later that day a Brookings classmate reached out to me, she was friends with Charlie, the guy in the elevator, and suggested I reach out to his office for an interview. I did, and bingo, I landed an appointment in the office of Senator Wendell Ford, Minority Whip of the Senate and Chair of the Rules Committee.

I was put to work to deal with disposition of chemical weapons which was a significant issue for the Senator in his home state of Kentucky. I developed language putting forward the concept of developing a pilot program to test different technologies for the disposition of chemical weapons. This would become an amendment to be attached to the Defense Authorization Act.

Usually, it would be per forma for me to accompany the Senator as he goes to the Senate floor to introduce the bill. Since I was a Fellow and not a staffer, the Senator needed to reach out to ensure there was no objection to my going on to the floor. It was mentioned that I use a guide dog. One Senator objected and I was denied access to the Senate floor because of my service dog. I also learned that I could not use a white cane as it was considered to be a weapon since decades earlier a Senator was almost killed by a Congressman who attacked the Senator with a cane. Learning this, I asked how I was to get on the floor, you will be escorted came the reply. I objected, as I did not want to be dependent on another person.

I had no idea what to do since the Senator who objected was anonymous. I was in uncharted territory. Soon it became clear to me that the office thought once my fellowship was completed the issue would leave with me. My options were limited. So, I submitted my letter of resignation. We then negotiated a path forward and I would stay on till the end of my assignment. The Senator would drop a resolution to amend the Senate rules to allow individuals with service dogs access to the Senate floor. This was late in the calendar year, so I knew this was not going to go anywhere. However, it would be printed in the Congressional Record, which provided documentation to me that this needed to be fixed. I was approaching the end of my year and I met with my boss at the Department of Energy to discuss my return. He was aware of my dilemma and was pleased with my accomplishments with regards to the chemical weapons program. He said I could stay on the Hill for another year. I was ecstatic.

I then reached to other staffers in other offices that I had worked with. After all I was free labor, as the Department of Energy was paying my salary. Senator Wyden’s office was interested. I met with the Senator, he asked if I had any questions. I asked him if he would support my efforts to go on to the Senate floor. His quick response was “yes,” he was guided by the principles of social justice.

I joined Wyden’s staff. My portfolio was largely related to energy issues. With another staffer I wrote the provision for the transportation of nuclear waste to be transported to Yucca Mountain. In April of 1997, Senator Wyden went to the Senate floor to discuss this provision to be included in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. He asked for consent that I join him on the floor with my service dog. Again, there was an anonymous hold. Senator Wyden read a statement saying that I could not get on the floor because the Senate was discriminating against me because I needed a guide dog to navigate the Senate floor. The network news was all over this story. Beau and I made it all over the evening news, CNN was breaking to update the story. The American public was outraged by this injustice. The search was on to identify the anonymous Senator. Senator Lott, then the majority leader, told his staff to “fix it.” Wyden’s chief of staff and I met with the Sargent of Arms and negotiated an agreement. I would be given access to the Senate floor the next day by the Sargent of Arms. In addition, the Senate rules would be amended to allow for service dogs and assistive technologies on to the Senate floor.

When I first learned that I was not allowed onto the Senate floors, tears fell down my face. Restaurants and taxies were regularly denying me access, everything was a battle; for that reason, I could not let go of the fight to get on to the Senate floor. I had to stand up for my civil rights. I found that most of America stood with me, that was the most important lesson to me.

Thank you for joining us today to listen to a Voice of the Leader Dog Community! You can see the other parts of Moira’s posts here.

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