It was early spring of 1998. Pantera, my first guide dog, and I had been a working team for just six months. I was enjoying the newfound freedom a guide dog had brought into my life as a young wife, mom and recent graduate with a Master’s degree in counseling.
On this evening, my husband Steve and I were on our way home from a wedding reception. We’d just seen dear friends, and I was feeling particularly confident in the relationship I’d built with Pantera. As we entered the store, we were laughing and enjoying the evening together. I was loving the ability to walk confidently with my guide dog by my side.
Steve had just grabbed the cart when the store manager approached us and said, “No dogs allowed.”
In my mind, I thought, oh this is one of those times a little education is needed. “This is my guide dog,” I explained, expecting the manager to move on. He did not seem to be listening. He pointed to a sign that read: No Pets Allowed. Steve re-emphasized that Pantera was a guide dog and I was blind. We had the right to enter the store, he reminded the manager.
The manager pointed again to the sign: No pets allowed. Patiently, Steve said, “This isn’t a pet. She’s a guide dog.” I pulled out my access card from Guide Dogs for the Blind and showed him the summary of the laws. Perhaps he just needed further education, I thought, struck by his unwillingness to listen to us.
The manager was unmoved. “No. No dogs allowed. If you don’t leave, I’m going to call the police.”
The police? That was an unexpected turn. How did we get from entering the store with my guide dog to calling the police? Simple education had shifted to defending my right to be in the store, and it felt surreal. “We’re not breaking the law. It’s perfectly legal for us to be here,” I said.
“You stay at the front of the store,” the manager demanded. “I’m going to call the police.”
“Please do,” Steve said. We were in disbelief. What was happening? This seemed to have moved beyond discrimination into the bizarre. Our kids were waiting at home, and this quick stop was talking longer than expected. We quickly walked through the store to pick up our needed items.
“He’s watching us,” Steve told me as he spotted the manger craning around an aisle, as though we were dangerous criminals.
The cashier who checked us out was oblivious to her manager’s concerns. She was friendly and talkative, and I’m not sure she even noticed Pantera. But the manager was waiting for us as we approached the exit. He was furious. His indignation felt ridiculous, since we knew Pantera and I had every right to be in the store.
“The police are on their way,” he snarled. “I’d like you to wait for them outside.”
We complied, not because we had any obligation to obey this man, but because we needed to see this through. He had not heard anything we said. He had ignored our right to access and had been contemptuous and disdainful because of my guide dog. We’d been treated as though we didn’t deserve the same rights as others, and as we walked outside I was struck with empathy for people throughout history who have experienced discrimination. I couldn’t get my head around the pain of discrimination until we felt his blatant suspicion and mistrust that night.
It was a chilly evening as we stood outside and waited for the police to arrive. Finally, a patrol car pulled up and parked near the entrance to the store. The manger walked out to meet the officer, who got out of his car and walked straight to Pantera. He bent over and rubbed Pantera’s ears, then looked up at Steve and me.
“This is a beautiful dog,” he said, sending a clear message. He stood up and turned to the manager. “Sir, you need to understand that you can choose not to allow these people in your store. However, you would be subject to a hefty fine as a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
The wind knocked out of his sails, the manager didn’t even acknowledge us, let alone apologize. He just turned and slithered back into the store. Before the officer left, he said he was sorry about the incident and reassured us that, of course, we were welcome to come back and visit the store anytime.
Stunned at the way the manager had behaved, Steve and I talked about the experience all the way home. I’d actually been denied entry to a store because I had a guide dog. Now what? I knew I couldn’t just go home and forget about it. I felt that something good could come from our experience, but I wasn’t sure how.
I went into work the next day and told Julia, my superviser. She was appalled. “That can’t happen!” she exclaimed. She knew the owner of the grocery store chain and immediately called him. He was shocked and apologetic, and referred us to a woman in the Human Resources department, who was also shocked and apologetic.
We also wrote a letter expressing our concern that something like this could happen, and citing my rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The grocery store’s corporate office was gracious. The offending manager was required to write us a letter of apology and gave Pantera a gift card to Petco. The store also required him to take two weeks unpaid leave.
These responses soothed the sting, but I still didn’t feel at peace with the experience. I wanted to speak up and educate further, so I asked the Human Resources representative if I could train their store managers on the ADA. She agreed and in the weeks leading up to my presentation I read and studied extensively. I learned as much as I could about all aspects of the law so that I could present clearly and answer questions confidently.
Being told to leave the store because I had a guide dog became an empowering reference point for which I am grateful. I am not grateful for the sting of blatant discrimination. I do not want anyone to be denied access anywhere or at any time because they have a guide dog. However, I am grateful for the advocacy skills I gained from this experience. I have carried them with me to use, for the many times since then when I have been put in a position of speaking up for myself and other individuals. This experience shifted my mindset into one of an advocate, and for that I am grateful.
In the past 18 years, I have had many opportunities to advocate and educate about the Americans With Disabilities Act. Unfortunately, many of these times have been after being denied access — to a taxi cab, a major women’s clothing store, a major airline, and other situations where it might be easier to simply move on. But I reflect on this first experience and how it taught me the importance of assertively speaking up and educating. I could have left that store feeling frustrated, not shopped there again, and left it at that. I learned that I needed to speak up, not only for myself but for all those who may enter that store after me. I take the time to educate and advocate so others won’t have to go through the same thing.
On a chilly March evening in 1998, standing outside of the grocery store waiting for the police to arrive, I found my voice. I am thankful for how this experience taught me that lemonade can come from lemons. Through one uneducated store manager, a large group of managers were educated. My voice matters and can make a difference.
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