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Monday, March 16, 2009

Cleveland, pt. 2 - Barking & Entering

Long story short: the bowling alley called the cops and I got kicked out with my service dog....

Now, this is a story that, once I get started, anyone who knows me will hear during its recounting, faintly in the distance, the sounds of trumpet blare and cavalry charge. So keep in mind the author's predilection for The Good Fight. That being said, well aware as the author is of this predilection, he actually performed pretty admirably and with appropriate restraint, if with some admitted posturing and righteous sneer.

OK, so - short story long:

I get there with Tag, after having taken him on a 30-minute walk. It was a Sunday night, end of a five-show weekend, and Tag had had his share of crate-dwelling. So I thought it would be good to take him on a healthy walk before putting on his vest and taking him indoors again.

Duty done, he donned the vest and in we went to The Corner Alley. I introduced to the host myself and my service dog as such, wearing his properly identified "Service Dog" vest. We proceeded past the restaurant section, past the pool tables, to the bowling alley. Tag was excited, looking around, but quiet as a mouse and under my control the whole time. The concept of people lining up one after the other to grab and throw at great velocity what - to him - were simply oversize versions of the tennis balls he uses to fetch was AWFULLY attractive to the 8-mo. old puppy, service training or not. He was riveted to them, quickly turning his head from one to the other, and often standing up and then sitting back down. But he stayed put, he wasn't yelping or whining; and he & I simply stayed behind the familiar half-moon bench, nowhere near the food, nowhere near the bar. And we watched the company bowling just as happy as you please.

Now it was clear to me that as patient as Tag was being, with all the commotion and noise he was unlikely to lie down and fall asleep like he usually does when we take him out to a restaurant or a movie. There was just too much unusualness to look at. And I was figuring on staying and watching for about twenty minutes or so and then taking him back to the hotel room. I was just going to give him a chance to get accustomed to the environment, and then we were going to leave.

However, not eight minutes after we were there, the manager - a man by the name of Jeff Poe (click on photo #9) - came up to me. Smiling and the very slightest bit apologetic, he explained to me that while he loved dogs, had a couple at home himself, he understood that Tag was a service dog in training only and he wouldn't allow him inside his establishment. They served food there, after all (and here began the insinuation I was trying to 'pull one over' on him), and he couldn't have 'pets' there. I returned his smile and explained that Tag wasn't a pet, he was a service dog.

"But is he your service dog?" he asked. Well, I explained, for the purposes of defining any kind of ownership at this point, yes he would be considered my dog, or at least in my care. "But are you disabled?" he asked. I explained that actually my MS does legally qualify me as 'disabled;' but no, I freely admitted, this service dog was a dog in training, in my charge for the purposes of gaining experience in public settings. And according to the Americans With Disabilities Act, service animals should be afforded all access to public accommodation as would be able-bodied individuals, at work or in training, and regardless of the level of disability of their handler.

That's where the disagreement began. Very quickly, the guy says, "Look, this is gonna go one of two ways: either you're going to leave on your own, or I'm gonna have you thrown out." Fine - the gauntlet was thrown down. Call the cops, I told him. I'd rather at least be thrown out by the police than by his flunkies. At least cops wouldn't get violent and I'd have a badge number to file a complaint with.

"Look, I serve food here," he said.

"Handicapped people have to eat too," I said.

"But you're not disabled. What's your disability?" NOTE: even his asking this question is illegal, according to the ADA.

"It's not about my disability, it's about the dog getting the necessary training and exposure to ably perform as a service dog. Where else can he practice being in a restaurant, other than being in a restaurant?" Bear in mind, also, that we weren't actually in a restaurant - the restaurant was on the other side of the business. We were in a bowling alley.

"Look, this is my business, I can ask anyone I want to leave."

So now he was making this about being a business owner. I could have continued to argued about the compromises willingly undertaken by any business owner within a society of commonly-held laws, but I realized how futile it would have been, and simply restated my point: it's the law, man. It's the law.

Although after he called the cops and I waited for them to arrive, I did keep talking to him. I didn't swear, I didn't yell (though I did refuse to allow him to interrupt me and was sure to finish all my sentences). The fact is that, more than most states, Ohio goes particularly far in guaranteeing the rights of all service dogs and their handlers, at work or in training. It's specifically spelled out by the Revised Code Section 955.43 that "The dog must either be serving as, or be in training to be, a guide, leader, listener, or support dog."

However, such specificity was lost not only on Mr. Jeff Poe but also on Cleveland Police Department Officers Ryan (badge number 1675) and Grady (badge number 1686). These two boys in blue were very polite, very friendly, and in vocal agreement with me, after we had left the bowling alley and were talking on the sidewalk outside of course, that I had EVERY legal right to be there with my service dog in training. But that they felt it was their responsibility as police officers to help serve the requests of the local business owners. And so, as I summarized back to them my understanding of their peacemaking efforts, it was his right to kick me out, and my right to sue.

Which is, of course, wrong - it would be like saying "We know black people have a right to bowl here, but he has a right to kick them out and they have a right to sue." But obviously, I wasn't going to press the issue. Not without actually living in Cleveland, not with a trip across the Canadian border coming up, and not with somebody else's dog for which I was responsible.

So, I took Tag back to the hotel and returned to the bowling alley. Angie had continued speaking with Mr. Jeff Poe to see if she might reason with him, and perhaps the tears of a pretty blonde woman who wasn't spouting the Revised Code of Ohio's Civil Rights Law back at him were simply a more effective tool, but he seemed to soften his position greatly, to her at least. But when I came back fifteen minutes later, I was there for a good hour afterwards and he made no effort to reconcile a damn thing.

So - according to my rights under the ADA, I filed a Title III complaint with the US Department of Justice, alleging improper expulsion on the part of the business owner and the police; I filed a complaint with the Ohio Attorney General's Office; I filed a complaint with the Ohio Commission on Human Rights; I filed a complaint with the Cleveland Better Business Bureau; I filed not a complaint but an informational letter with the station commander of the Third District of the Cleveland Police Department in which I stated that while respected their intention to simply defuse the situation, they were in error in enforcing the business owner's request; I sent copies of the letter to both of the officers; I filed letters of complaint to the Corner Alley manager Jeff Poe and the general Manager Scott Gotto; and I even filed a complaint with the Greater Cleveland Bowling Association, for good measure.

Now - I must repeat, the cops were very cool about it. And in fact, in subsequent calls to the District office during which I spoke with the Sargeant on Duty, I was given to understand that the officers' supervisors were well aware of the officers' mistake. And I wouldn't be surprised, given Officer Grady's later phone manner when efforts were made to get an incident report (with which to file the above listed complaints), that he and his partner had been sternly spoken to. So I didn't make any formal complaint with the police department. Teachable moment, everyone learned a lesson, leave it at that.

But I thought this point was particularly interesting: both officers (and the bowling alley manager) tried to ameliorate the situation by explaining that they were ‘dog lovers.’ I need to be clear on this - the issue has nothing to do with a person’s love of animals. This is not a pet, it is an instrument of utility. It requires training on site. As far as the legality of its presence, at work or in training, it is considered the same as a wheelchair or a crutch. Regardless of the level of disability on the part of its handler and so long as there is no undue disturbance, it is legally accepted in all areas of public accommodation. Period. (They might as well have said, "Oh, don't get me wrong. I love handicapped people. Really. I've got a couple of 'em at home myself. But I know enough not to bring 'em to work or to a restaurant with me.")

A service animal is not a pet any more than is a wheelchair or a cane – it is a necessary tool for individuals with disabilities. Naturally, the on-site training of service animals, both by people with disabilities and without, at public accommodations such as The Corner Alley, is critically important. Such exposure makes all the difference between a reliably effective & capable service dog and an unreliable one. A service animal cannot be trained to function in a restaurant or any public accommodation without being allowed entry. When properly identified, under control, and not causing undue disturbance, there is no reason why a service dog in training, regardless of the disability status of its handler, should receive any less consideration than any service animal at work.

Nevertheless, not a week later, as Angie was running her errands and dropping off some mail at the post office, she was finger-wagged by the postal worker that "pets" were not allowed, and in the future, she was not to bring her "pet". All the same points were made, all the same appropriate service-attire was clearly in evidence, and this was even a government office, but still - the same confusion was made.

So, we're pulling out the printer again....

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