[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!
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.