The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. § 12101) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. It affords similar protections against discrimination to Americans with disabilities as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin, and other characteristics illegal. In addition, unlike the Civil Rights Act, the ADA also requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and imposes accessibility requirements on public accommodations.
Yesterday, I had an experience that irked me to no end. I should not be surprised it happened, but frankly, I am. Because Athens, Georgia is a small town, and people like the proprietor of the establishment where this incident occurred, are the litigious type, I will call her “Vivian,” rather than use her real name. I will refer to her coffee house as “V’s Place,” although that is not the actual name of the business, either. That way, if anyone who reads this should happen to figure out where, or whom, I am talking about, no one can claim I defamed anyone’s reputation. In fact, as much as I am tempted to, I’m not even going to give her one of those “eeeek” one-star reviews on Yelp.
Last month, I lost my dog, Lizzie, and because Reggie, my surviving Frenchie pug, is now alone, I felt it was time to do what I’d been talking with my doctors about doing for over a year. Two of my doctors, not one, two, wrote me a letter designating Reggie as my Emotional Support Animal, meaning he is a service animal who is allowed to accompany me in public establishments that normally would not allow dogs inside the business.
Georgia has slightly different standards for Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) than California does, but according to one of my doctors, the only real difference I need to worry about is airlines. I always fly Southwest when I go back to San Diego and I know there is no problem there, but it is good information, nonetheless.
In any case, I will have to look up the nuances of the law, in relation to the American Disabilities Act, but in general, all I need is the letters I have from my doctors. Since the designation is recent, I have not had the chance to acquire an official service animal jacket or card for Reggie, but the doctors told me if anyone asks, the letters are legally sufficient.
In California, business owners are not even allowed to ask what my disability is, and I heard that the laws are such that they cannot even ask if Reggie is a service dog, although, out of consideration for people like me who do have legitimate service animals (no peacocks here), I prefer to cooperate and show the letter. I am not offended by them asking because the whole issue with airlines now arose from people abusing the privilege of bringing their exotic and/or unruly pets on crowded airlines.
The difficulty of managing an “invisible disability” in the real world is different than the challenges of a visible one: a wheelchair, for example, is unquestionable. However, one of my dearest friends, whom I met in my chronic illness support group, has shared many of the frustrations of having to deal with people and businesses, even hotels, who are not abiding by the ADA’s requirements for accessibility for wheelchairs and other apparatuses needed by people with physical handicaps of one kind or another.
My medical disabilities are 100 percent invisible, and in most cases, the millions of people like me who are battling a long-term chronic health condition are walking around with the same facade of appearing “normal.” I hate that word, but I don’t know how else to describe the difference between “them” (the non-disabled) and “us” (the disabled) because the phrase we most often hear is, “You look fine.” In fact, there is a book called, Just Fine, that talks about this whole battle with the rest of the world’s misperception that we look fine, so therefore we must feel fine.
Now that I’ve piqued your curiosity, you are probably wondering what happened yesterday afternoon, Saturday, November 10, 2018, when I met my friends and writing colleagues at “V’s Place” to talk about our upcoming AWA open mic event at Normal Books, and to hang out and talk about life in general.
I won’t keep you in suspense any longer.
When we walked into the small coffee and dessert shop, there were no other patrons in the place. There was a long counter with stools and a couple of seats by the wall. The owner, “Vivian,” looked at me, and at Reggie, and I automatically told her, “He’s a service dog. I have a letter.” (I guess I could feel her negative energy so I preemptively alerted her to Reggie’s ESA status).
“I don’t allow dogs,” she curtly replied.
“He’s a service dog,” I told her again.
“He doesn’t look like a service dog.”
“I have a letter from my doctor. I can show it to you.”
“I don’t need to see the letter.”
My two friends suggested we go somewhere else, which was fine with me, but before we left, I asked “Vivian” if I could use the restroom. (I really had to go, you know how that is, ladies).
Then, get this, “Vivian” said to me, “We don’t have public restrooms.”
I replied, “We were going to be customers.” (I think I shocked her a bit with that one because she lied and said, “We don’t have indoor seating anyway”). As if that matters in a coffee house. We could have bought a cup of coffee to go for all she cared.
I was livid on the inside, but calm.
I wasn’t done with “Vivian” yet. You see, unbeknownst to her, I’m friends with her best friend, and I’d met “Vivian” a few years ago at this friend’s birthday.
“Vivian” obviously didn’t remember me.
“You’re friends with Allison (name has been changed) right?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Yes,” she replied, a bit taken aback.
“I’m friends with Allison, too,” I said. “I met you before, at her birthday party a few years ago.”
“Vivian” looked like she didn’t know what to say. She may have said something like, “Huh,” or “Oh,” but who cares.
I made my point.
“Have a nice day,” I said as we left and she said some fake cordial goodbye as well.
The worst part of this was the embarrassment in front of my writing colleagues and friends, but they were absolutely cool about it, and I’m grateful. I always worry here in the South about coming across too bluntly, but I am glad my friends respected that I stood up to her, and did not simply back down.
For what it’s worth, folks, “Vivian” was breaking the law.
Yes, that’s right. The American Disabilities Act of 1990 is the law of the land.
If I wanted to be a real b**ch, I could file a lawsuit, that’s how serious a violation of the ADA this incident was – I had a letter, she refused to even look at it, and asked us to leave.
That’s against the law.
Even my friends were shocked that she refused to look at the letter.
So, I could go to the media. I could “lawyer up.” I could take this case as far as it might go.
And, since I have two witnesses, she’d have no case.
Fortunately, for “Vivian,” my life is so complicated right now that I don’t feel the need to do that…
One of the hardest things about the last two years, for me personally, was seeing the Congress “gut” the American Disabilities Act. Even the democrats got on board with it.
Even my former democratic congressman from San Diego got on board with it, and that made me sick to my stomach.
I don’t want to use my blog to get political, so I will stop here, on that note, but please understand, from a human perspective, how seeing your civil rights stripped away, rights you depend on, can take a toll on your sense not only of justice, but of safety.
For the first time in a long time, I felt truly vulnerable in this country, and in this world. And I hate this feeling.
Right now, Reggie and I are hanging out in Walker’s Pub in downtown Athens where they not only allow service dogs, but all dogs, according to the ladies working behind the bar.
I always liked Walker’s. They have awesome soy lattes anyway.
Reggie is a little scared, because it is more crowded and noisy than he’s used to, but I’m still working on the kinks of bringing him out into the world on a regular basis.
He likes it, a lot.
In fact, I think he loves it.
People just adore him, and, I think it is not only helping him to bond to me as “his human,” I think it is helping him to heal.
For, the recent events in our lives have hurt Reggie as much as they have hurt me. Probably more so, because he cannot understand what happened.
I’ve written about this before so I need not repeat it, but yes, dogs do grieve losses just like people grieve, in their own ways, in their own time.
(Right now, people are coming up to me to ask to pet Reggie, he’s feeling better. This is the best part of having a dog, being able to meet people, nice people, dog people.)
I realize by training Reggie to be my ESA, bringing him out into the big, bad world, I’m inviting people like “Vivian” to get in my face (not that she was that bad, it could have been a lot worse, it’s the principle of it that makes me angry).
I think I better get used to it. She was probably just the warm-up.
For, people with disabilities, people who are different, people who push the envelope, like myself, are always going to face people like “Vivian.” We always are going to have to justify who we are, what we stand for, and why we have the same rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as the “normal,” non-disabled folks who do not need service animals, for any reason.
Aren’t they the lucky ones.
Although, I wouldn’t trade Reggie for anything, not even the chance to be “normal.”