Category Archives: Legal/Access Issues

No Dogs! [Updated]

[Update July 17,2014]
I never received a response regarding my complaint, however this morning I found this sign on a bulletin board at the entrance to the facility. The other prominent “No Dogs” signs are still posted but I’ll chalk this up as a win!

Service Dogs Allowed

 

 

 

No-Dogs

April 29, 2014

to: Assabet River National Wildlife Reserve
cc: Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination
cc: Department of the Interior

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to you regarding an incident that occurred this morning at the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge.

I enjoy walking at the refuge one or two days each week during my morning commute. Accompanying me on my walks as well as throughout the day is my professionally trained service dog, Luka, who assists me with a medical disability. As I’m sure you are aware, my right to bring my service dog to public places is guaranteed under the Americans with Disabilities Act in addition to Massachusetts-specific laws. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), to whom I have cc’d this letter, can answer any questions you might have regarding this.

This morning as I was getting out of my car I was approached by a fellow walker who became quite agitated upon seeing Luka. He told me that I was not allowed to bring dogs on the trails and that I needed to leave. I politely explained that Luka is a service dog (as is clearly stated on the patches he wears on his harness) and he helps me with a disability and my right to be there was protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I also explained that I had spoken with one of the park rangers the prior summer and that he was aware that I visited the park with Luka and that it was within my rights to do so.

The man became more confrontational and repeatedly pointed to the sign near the entrance that says “No Dogs” with a picture of a dog and a red circle with a stripe through it while shouting, “The sign says NO DOGS!” He demanded that I walk my dog somewhere else where “other people walk their dogs.” He was not threatening but he grew increasingly agitated to the point where I felt concern for my personal safety. I attempted to defuse the situation by not arguing with him and asked which trail he intended to take, telling him that I would take a different trail. I walked off with Luka while he continued to shout at me.

This is the third time in the past year I have been approached by other visitors who insist that I am in violation of the “no dog” rule. In each case my explanation about Luka being a service dog fell on deaf ears. They clearly felt that the policy dictated on the sign was final and without exception. Fortunately none of them took it upon themselves to enforce the policy and left me alone with nothing more than a rude stare. Last summer I received a complaint letter from your office after someone reported me and my license plate number. I called the ranger who wrote the letter and explained my situation. He was 100% professional and courteous. He understood the ADA and what questions he was allowed to ask me, and he agreed that I had a right to use the facility and that I should disregard the complaint letter.

Let me tell you a little bit about what it is like having a service dog. Everywhere Luka and I go – every mall, restaurant, movie theater, and grocery store – we draw stares. Mostly people are polite. Some quietly make a comment to their friend or child. Some try to engage me or Luka in conversation. Some actually follow me, watching, like I am an actor in some kind of reality show. I’ve learned to avoid people’s gazes lest they capture my attention and ask in one form or another, “What’s wrong with you?” Most of the time their choice of words is less direct and not offensive. Not all the time.

Some people might bask in all that attention. I do not. I simply want to go about my business anonymously like everyone else.

Encounters like the one I had today are very intimidating as were the ones I had previously this year. They make it easy to fall into the trap of avoiding places where I think there is a possibility for conflict or where I might draw more attention than I am in the mood for. This avoidance of places and situations can lead to feeling isolated and feeling that having a service dog limits my choices when instead it should expand them; living with a disability is limiting enough.

I don’t expect everyone to know the law as it regards people with disabilities and service dogs. I understand that I will have to defend my rights from time to time and am prepared to do so calmly. However the signage used to communicate your no-dog policy empowers and enables people to confront people like me, thinking that they are in the right because the sign clearly says so. And nothing I say is going to convince them otherwise.

Your signs directly lead to the intimidation of people with disabilities who have service dogs. That’s discrimination. I would like you to change them to explicitly state that service animals are allowed. One common phrasing is “No Pets (service animals allowed)” and signs with this wording are readily available. It clearly explains your policy and would allow people with service animals to feel welcome and free to visit the refuge without fear of confrontation.

I look forward to hearing from you on this matter.

 

A Doggone Update

Mya

This is the latest picture of Mya. She has been busy undergoing training with Scott Smith and is growing fast.

If all goes well she’ll be ready to come home in a few weeks. I’m busy starting to figure out what kinds of supplies I’ll need. I don’t generally enjoy shopping but this is actually pretty fun. There are some very cool dog toys available!

 

 

The big news has to do with my work situation which I talked about in a prior post.

Several weeks ago I decided to file a formal complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) after getting the continual runaround from my employer regarding my appeal of their denial for my request for accommodation to bring Mya to work. I went to a musty smelling, 1960s era office in Worcester City Hall complete with the stained oak woodwork and cigarette-smoke-stained ceiling tiles expecting a bureaucracy and a whole lot of forms to fill out. Boy was I surprised. After a brief wait I met with an investigator who is an attorney. She was young but very bright and sincere in her desire to help people. She listened to my complaint, asked a lot of detailed questions, and took a lot of notes. After I told her everything there was to tell she asked if I wanted to file a complaint. I asked if she thought I had a good case to which she responded that she can’t express her opinion but that she could tell me what the law said. She proceeded to explain how Massachusetts disability law differed from the Federal law (ADA) and how it applied to my situation. Without expressing her opinion she made it pretty clear that I had a good case and I should file a complaint.

She left for a while and typed up the formal complaint, came back and explained how the process would work and then she gave me the bad news: while the fact finding part of the complaint would happen over the next 45 days, the investigation and judgement phase would get put into a queue behind other cases that were still being investigated and they are currently working on cases from 2010, so my expected wait time would be… eighteen months!

That was pretty bad news. The whole meeting was quite a roller coaster ride. Someone with the power to influence events was interested in the minutest details of my story and was going to help fight this battle with me. It was, quite honestly, very emotional and I told her as much. For the first time I felt like someone else was helping to carry this load I’ve been bearing for the past several months. I was all elated that maybe this was all going to work out only to discover that the wheels of justice do indeed grind slowly.

Throughout out conversation, the investigator was very businesslike, unemotional, never wanting to reveal her opinion. After we were done, as I was collecting my papers, I asked her a little bit about how she came to this line of work and said that I thought it must be very rewarding to help people who have been discriminated against, marginalized, and who often don’t understand the law. For a brief moment she looked me in the eye and lifted the veil of professionalism she maintained between us as she said in the most sincere voice that I will never forget, “It is very rewarding.” I think she may have renewed my faith in people just then.

The complaint produced the desired response because a few days later I was politely invited to a meeting with the president of the company and one of the senior corporate attorneys. I went to the meeting prepared for a fight but was pleasantly surprised to find them respectful, curious, and open to discussion. I’m guessing that once the complaint was served, my situation gained the attention of the president and he decided to deal with it personally since the people I had been dealing with previously had apparently botched things by thinking they were above the law.

I’ll skip the gory details but I was told today that my request for accommodation has been approved without condition – Mya will be able to accompany me to work. They had a few concerns related to allergies, cleanliness, and where I would take her to relieve herself, but they were very reasonable and careful to not make demands.

So today is a day of celebration. The final hurdle has been cleared and in just a few weeks I’ll be bringing Mya home to a new life. I’m sure there will be challenging times ahead as we find our way but today is a good day!

 

Fighting City Hall

One of my initial concerns as I started to consider getting a diabetic alert dog (hereafter DAD) was public access – specifically whether I would be able to bring her to work. At the time, I hadn’t read much about the legal aspects of this and I was still in the contemplation stage; gathering facts so I could make an informed decision. So I informally approached someone in HR and asked if there was a policy about this and how they would feel if I wanted to bring a service dog to work. I explained my medical condition including the serious risk that hypoglycemia unawareness poses and explained that the dog would be classified as a service dog which carries certain legal protections. I naively expected this to be no big deal and that my employer would have sympathy for my situation, recognize its obligations under the law, and approve my informal request.

After making my request I dug more deeply into my rights under the law. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees unless they pose an undue burden or significantly interferes with the operation of the business or the employee’s work. My interpretation of the law led me to conclude that my request was perfectly reasonable, did not pose an undue burden, and in would no way interfere with the business of the company or my work. I was asking for the right to have a dog sit on the floor next to me at my desk all day – how could this possibly be a problem? Regarding the question of whether diabetes is considerer a disability, I found this tidbit on the AskJan.org website which interprets disability law for employers:

“Is diabetes a disability under the ADA? …according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the individualized assessment of virtually all people with diabetes will result in a determination of disability under the ADA; given its inherent nature, diabetes will almost always be found to substantially limit the major life activity of endocrine function”

I was quite surprised when – several weeks later – I was told that my request had been denied. I asked why and the HR director squirmed a bit and tried to avoid giving me a substantial reason. I kept pushing until she said that they didn’t feel it was medically necessary. There were a lot of responses ricocheting around my head but I kept my cool and said with only the slightest bit of snark, “I don’t think the employer gets to make that determination.” I went on to express my deep dissatisfaction with their decision and said that I wanted to speak directly to the corporate legal team who, I was told, had come to this decision.

For legal reasons, I won’t go into detail about what transpired next. In a followup meeting I was told in very certain terms that my request was denied and the issue closed. The way this information was presented left me feeling very intimidated and frustrated which, in my humble opinion, was their intent. I seriously considered finding a new job.

Over the following weeks I spoke to everyone who would listen to my story to try to get a sense of what I was up against. The list included the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), American Diabetes Association (ADA), Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), and a generous family member who is an attorney.

In each case I was told I had a legitimate complaint and that I should respond to their reason of lack of medical necessity by a formal request with a letter from my doctor detailing my condition, the risk it poses, and the medical benefit that a DAD would provide. If the new request is again denied then I should file a formal complaint with MCAD whose lawyers will investigate and pursue resolution.

And that’s where it stands today. I recently mailed my request with supporting documentation from my doctor and a Lily study testifying to the efficacy of DADs. So now I wait.

My emotions during this process have been all over the board, often changing moment to moment and day to day; a condition I expect will continue for the foreseeable future. These are the overtones:

  • Frightened – there is definitely a risk my employer could retaliate and fire me outright. I’d recover but in this economy it could be very unpleasant. Retaliation is illegal and I could sue for back pay plus punitive damages but that can take years to litigate and untold amounts of stress.
  • Intimidated – I don’t like confrontation and tend to avoid it whenever possible. I just want this situation to go away.
  • Bold – I’m not going to be bullied. I will stand up for the right to manage my health and improve my chances of a long diabetes-complication-free life the way I see fit. Standing up for my rights may also aid the next person who needs to request accommodation for their disability.
  • Angry – it infuriates me that I have to waste my time and energy dealing with this when I have much more deserving beneficiaries.

Put all this into a pot and stir and you’ve got yourself a nice recipe for Stress Stew. And we all know what stress does to glycemic control right?

With luck this will be resolved, one way or another, before Mya has completed training. Stay tuned for updates.