You Can’t Legislate Ableism Away
Of the most pervasive myths about anti-discrimination legislation is that the passage of the legislation somehow magically puts a stop to the discrimination, making everything hunky dory. This myth is most commonly believed by people who are not personally impacted by the discrimination that legislation was designed to address. It’s unfortunately a pretty easy myth to disprove.
Today, I decided to do some hunting around to illustrate a really pervasive form of discrimination that many people think isn’t a problem anymore: Denying access to people with service animals. There are a lot of misconceptions about service animals and what they do, and I’d recommend reading folks like Sharon at After Gadget, Melissa at Service Dogs: A Way of Life, or thetroubleis at The Trouble Is… if you’re interested in some service animal mythbusting.
In many regions of the world, there are laws in place that dictate access for service animals. Here in the United States, for example:
The service animal must be permitted to accompany the individual with a disability to all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go. An individual with a service animal may not be segregated from other customers. (Commonly Asked Questions About Service Animals In Places of Business)
That seems pretty clear. How does that play out in practice?
Claire Crowell, 69, said she tried to go to the Chinatown restaurant on Wednesday with her dog, Vixen, but was told by a front desk worker she could not bring the dog into the building. (‘Restaurant Sorry For Banning Seeing Eye Dog‘)
Christopher Nigl, 34, said he wants a teacher at Washington Elementary School to lose her job and the principal punished because they reported him to police when he was walking his medical dog in front of the school while on his way to pick up his girlfriend’s child after school. (‘Man threatens lawsuit over service dog incident‘)
Our fair neighbours to the north also seem to be having trouble with the concept of accessibility:
Renee Brady, who has relied on her six-year-old golden retriever to be her eyes for the last five years, said she was taken aback when the manager of the restaurant at Main Street and Mountain Avenue told her on Wednesday she had to eat her food outside because of the dog.
Brady, who was with a co-worker at the time, said at first she thought the male manager didn’t realize her dog, Able, was a guide animal. But she quickly realized that wasn’t the case.
“I said he was a guide dog and he said ‘I know it’s a guide dog, but you’ll have to leave,’ ” she said in an interview Friday. (‘Fast-food eatery shoos blind woman’s guide dog‘)
Across the pond:
She said: “It was late and we were cold and wanted to get home, but when approached the lead hackney carriage for a lift the driver just said: “Four people but no dog.”
“We were flabbergasted, especially as he had disabled stickers on display.
“But when we pointed out that he would be breaking the law if he refused to take my guide dog he just said: “Take me to court.” (‘Blind groups welcome taxi driver’s ‘no guide dog’ fine‘)
Britain isn’t the only nation with a recent incident involving a guide dog and a taxi:
A Sydney cabbie has been fined for refusing to allow a guide dog and its high-profile owner – Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes – into his vehicle.
Driver James Young has been fined $750 and ordered to pay $2,500 in costs after refusing to let Mr Innes and his labrador into his taxi in the Sydney CBD in April last year. (‘Paw form: cabbie fined for refusing guide dog‘)
In all of these cases, the dog was explicitly identified as a service animal. Most involved guide dogs, although Mr. Nigl’s dog was a psychiatric service animal. People persisted in discriminating in these incidents even after being informed that the dogs were service animals and that what they were doing was against the law.
I support anti-discrimination legislation, firmly. Without any legal framework at all for addressing discrimination, we would be facing an uphill battle. But what people who think that the problem ends with the legislation don’t seem to realise is that this is still a battle. We cannot wave a legislative gavel and whisk discrimination away; the legislation provides a means for fighting in court, which is important, but it does not end there. It sometimes empowers agencies to enforce it, but these agencies still have to do that, have to take reports on discrimination incidents, follow them up, and then use the enforcement tools at their command.
It does make inroads into social attitudes. High profile cases do attract attention and force people to start thinking about these issues when they might not otherwise, and the discussion about the necessity for such legislation highlights the fact that discrimination is an ongoing issue. However, more commonly, such laws are a reflection of a shift in social attitudes, with people gradually recognising that a.) Discrimination exists b.) It’s a problem and c.) Something should be done about it.
This is not a battle that can be fought and won in the legislature and the courts alone. It also needs to be fought in opinion editorials, on the streets, in popular culture, and in every other location that we have a chance to reach and access people. It’s not fair that we should have to advocate for the right to exist, for the right to go about our business like everyone else, but there it is. Policy supports this fight, but let no one make the mistake of thinking that policy wraps up the problem and allows them to move on to other things. Existing is still a political act, whether or not there’s a law that says it’s not ok to discriminate.