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.


  1. Yes.

    If I hear “ADA” cited as proof that someone will treat me right one more time I am going to throw a fit.

    The ADA is a starting point. People don’t have to follow it, cause that shit ain’t enforced. If they feel like blatantly violating it, they can, knowing that they will only suffer consequences if you have the time, money and motivation to hire an attorney and sue them for it, and the judge and jury consider you enough of a Good Cripple to merit caring about. Considering we are a population mired in forced poverty, short on time and energy to begin with, most people (employers, servicefolk, everyone you encounter in society) know there’s really not much threat against them if they do wrong by you, so they are pretty much free to do so.

    The ADA didn’t stop me from being treated like shit by every employer I’ve ever had, and needless to say there aren’t chairs in queue areas across the country, so “accessibility” and “accommodations” aren’t much in effect for my case. The ADA has a limited scope — addressing very important things! just not enough of them — and even within that scope, no teeth to make people follow the rules.

  2. I’ve wondered about our local Wal-Mart, knowing all the bad things I’ve heard about Wal-Mart’s hiring practices and how they treat employees, because one of the employees there uses an electric wheelchair and has a service dog. He’s allowed to have his service dog with him when he’s working, and I wondered if that was a general policy, or just something that the local manager did on his own (would he even be allowed to do that if his superiors found out and it wasn’t a general policy to allow employees with service animals to have them at work?).
    Cynic that I am, is that something that Wal-Mart is doing to counter their bad reputation in other areas? “See, we’re not so bad after all. We hire the handicapped and even let them bring their service animals to work.”
    I guess if it’s not an isolated incident, and they have more than just token employees who are hired and can do this, then it’s a good thing and may lead the way for other employers to do the same.
    As for not allowing service animals in restaurants, I don’t see the logic in that at all. If it’s a concern over behavior, service animals are better-behaved than most children I’ve seen in restaurants. If it’s a concern over animal hair in food, then they had better be sure all the kitchen help and wait staff are wearing hair/beard nets (my husband works in a plant that makes soy milk, he’s in the warehouse where it’s already boxed and ready to be shipped out and he has to wear a hairnet and beardnet while he’s at work, even though he’s never around the product when it’s being manufactured). But no one ever said that people who discriminate ever use any logic when they do what they do, more’s the pity.

  3. The Wal-Mart empire IS very good about disability. Better than any big employer out there, honestly. Now, that goes as far as it goes, which is that they make policies to be nice to disabled people and hire them and give them reasonable etc. but the way W-M works in practice is that it’s always too over-tasked to be able to hold strictly to the rules, so the rules go out the window. This is true anywhere in the retail/service sector but especially so with W-M. (I worked there.)

    But as far as talk goes? You can’t beat W-M in the megacorp business. They have excellent policy as regards disability.

  4. >>amandaw: But as far as talk goes? You can’t beat W-M in the megacorp business. They have excellent policy as regards disability.

    until you try to take one of their electric scooters out to your car 😉

  5. I agree with s.e. and amandaw. Legislation is what provides the framework for what people can and cannot get in court. Attitude influences whether people will follow the legislation, try to find loophoes, or blatantly ignore it at all.

  6. I’m vaguely wondering what the recourse for all involved parties would be in intersections – say, a taxi driver who was allergic to or phobic of dogs. (Popped into my mind because I am rather phobic of dogs, no matter how well-behaved.) “I’m sorry, I can’t handle being in a small space with a dog, but I can call a different taxi for you”?

  7. I’ve never hailed a cab off the street, Shiyiya, I usually call the company. (If I had to hail one, I’d never get one – that seems to take nerve.)

    Sometimes they want to know if you’ll be paying by credit card (some cars have newer machines, while most just do a rubbing of the card, like a gravestone rubbing or something) and if I called and said “I need to get to X and I have a service dog.” Just as a warning, in case of phobias or allergies. And they can hopefully send someone who won’t have a problem.

    But that’s more work on the part of a PWD, and if you hail a cab and they say “I’ll call someone who isn’t allergic” well then you have to wait and may be late. (And allergies can be bad – “I’m sorry but with your dog, I won’t be able to see because of my sneezing.”)

  8. I remember once working as a hostess at a sit-down chain restaurant that one of the other hostesses was getting into an argument with a fellow that has a service dog for epilepsy. The guy kept calmly saying,”I have epilepsy, this is my service dog, I’m legally allowed to bring him in,” whereas my co-worker would respond not-so-calmly “bs, you’re not blind and that doesn’t exist.” I had to step in and seat the dude, then pull the coworker aside and explain through gritted teeth why she wrong and probably should have been fired/sued for that. Take away lesson: just because you don’t know something exists doesn’t mean it’s not real.

    I wish the take-away lesson from HR had been “Making someone take an online course on ‘diversity’ is not an appropriate consequence for humiliating one of your customers.”

  9. Oh yeah, you expect crap when you’re a service dog partner, unfortunately.

    My current workplace- a COURTHOUSE, for crying out loud – didn’t understand what they were and weren’t allowed to ask, under law. They wanted to ask me for documentation that my dog is a necessary service dog, but thought they weren’t allowed to ask what tasks the dog performs, when in fact it’s the other way around – they aren’t supposed to ask for medical documentation, but they are allowed to ask about what tasks the dog does.

    I’ve had trouble with airlines – one asked me what my dog did and then demanded medical documentation, when the law says that if the dog is clearly marked, they have to accept that (we had to call over her supervisor to get our boarding passes). Then the flight attendant told me that my dog had to stay at my seat when I got up to use the restroom (um, NO). When we were making our connection, the boarding agent stopped us and asked for medical documentation AGAIN, and once again had to contact a superior to find out that yeah, we were supposed to be allowed on the blasted plane. That is MY medical information, and there is no way in hell I’m going to be waving it around for everyone in your damn company who thinks they have a right to see it. Not a damn one of them does.

    I’ve mostly done okay with taxis. One minivan taxi, the driver asked me to keep my dog on the floor rather than the seats, which was okay by me. Other than that, taxi drivers have on the whole been very polite.

    But OH, man to restaurants screw up. IHOP segregates me off by myself, and their managers are convinced that they have an obligation to do that.

    As to the question about allergies or phobias – by the strict letter of the law, my right to accomodation trumps the right to be accomodated for allergies or phobias. In practice, however, we service dog partners try to be good about it. I’m fine with moving across the room from someone if they’re afraid of my dog, or having someone else called to provide me service. My boy is fairly hypoallergenic, and I do share that with people who bring up concerns about allergies. As long as there is an effort made to accomodate me in an equal and similar way to other customers, I’m not going to be upset or cause a fuss. It’s when you treat me differently, separate me from other people, or cause me long waits that I’ll get growly.

    btw, much of my blog is about partnering a service dog, too.

  10. I honestly just don’t get people who think that “there are laws against discrimination” means “there is no discrimination”. I mean, no one woulkd argue that, because there are laws against killing people or laws against stealing, nobody kills anymore and nobody steals. We all understand that laws exist to discourage that behaviour and to have a possibility of recourse when someone breakes the rules (whether the punishments in our criminal laws are actually good is a whole other problem). Yet other laws, laws that don’t protect “everybody” but only “those people” don’t work the same way?
    (as if, for example, laws protecting private property were not there to protect “only” people who have private property, and as if everyone couldn’t, at one point, become one of “those people” who have a disability)

  11. Yeah those laws that are supposed to protect me? Nope, not so helpful. My local post office still has sign up that says “Seeing Eye Dogs Only,” even though I brought in information showing that despite being a federal building, they are bound by Section 504.

    Those laws often are no help right in the moment of an access challenge, especially if your local law enforcement isn’t familiar with them.

    If someone has a disabling phobia or allergy , of course I’m going to do my best to accommodate them, but what exactly happened would depend on the situation and things such as who was there first, what kind of public accommodation it is, etc.