Posts Tagged 'Americans with Disabilities Act'

Where Whitney was

People have been asking if Whitney stayed with me while I was in the hospital last week.

She did not.

That's Greg with his and Lois' dogs Gamma and Griffin.

That’s Greg with his and Lois’ dogs Gamma and Griffin.

Legally, I could have had her in the room with me — Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act allows those of us who rely on service dogs to have them along in hospital rooms. All bets are off, however, if the dog constitutes either a “fundamental alteration of goods and services available for all” or a “direct threat to safety.” So while Whitney could have legally sat at my bedside once I was recovering in a regular hospital room, she would not have been allowed while I was in ICU. She wouldn’t have been with me in any sterile rooms (such as the operating room). Certain areas of the emergency room/departments would have been forbidden, and she wouldn’t have been able to ride in the ambulance with me to the hospital in the first place — even Mike had to follow behind in a cab.

Hospital staff cannot be made responsible for caring for a service dog while a patient with a disability is in the hospital, and I’m afraid my case left doctors and nurses with bigger problems to solve than figuring out when and where to take Whitney out to pee. The truth is, we never even thought of asking my Seeing Eye dog to sit still and behave at my hospital bedside while I recovered. It wouldn’t have been fair to an energetic ball of fur like her. I didn’t need her to guide me anywhere, and she would have been bored out of her mind.

Our dear friend Greg Schafer rushed to the waiting room after cardiologists recommended Mike call a friend to be there with him while I was being operated on. After surgery was over, Greg offered to stop by our apartment and fetch Whitney, take her home with with him for a few days. Greg and his wife Lois have a huge yard with two dogs and all sorts of other critters. Whitney spent the weekend there tracking deer and enjoying long walks while Mike spent time helping me recover at Northwestern Hospital.

Greg and Lois returned Whitney to Chicago on Sunday. After getting her settled in our apartment, they stopped by the hospital to regale Mike and me with details of ways Whitney spent time with their own beautiful dogs, Griffin and Gamma. Their stories really cheered me up. Whitney was there to greet Mike at home that night, and she was at the door waiting for me when I finally returned home Tuesday. A joyful reunion for sure.

That's Whit wearing her Gentle Leader.

That’s Whit wearing her Gentle Leader.

Surgeons had to cut my sternum to perform open-heart surgery, and until that bone heals I can’t let Whitney wear a harness and pull me. Trainers at the Seeing eye have dealt with graduates who have had open-heart surgery before. Until my sternum heals, they recommend I have Whitney wear a Gentle Leader, a collar designed to gently discourage dogs from pulling while walking on a leash. Mike comes along on my walks with Whitney, and each day the length of our cardio walks expands a minute or two. Neighbors are getting used to seeing me sauntering down the block with Whitney on my left, Mike on my right: a heart-healthy sandwich.

Friends have been volunteering to take Whitney on faster walks every day too, to keep her in shape. Others fill in for Mike when he isn’t available to take me on the slower-paced walks. Between these volunteer walkers, the friend who brought her violin over to perform for me, the ones who have sent or delivered food, friends who have sent cards and music CDs and concert tickets and audio books and get-well bracelets and a lounging gown and body lotion and flowers and gift cards and whew, you’ve all been so kind I need to stop here to take a breath before I go on: my lungs aren’t back to normal quite yet!


Okay, I’m back. Thanks to all of those friends and all of you blog readers who have left such encouraging comments here on the blog, I feel loved, and I feel grateful. I’m alive, and I’m healing. And I’m looking forward to getting on the road again with Whitney.

And now a word from a fellow University of Illinois alum”

If you follow this blog, you already know guest blogger Sandra Murillo. Sandra lost her sight when she was three years old. She has always attended regular public schools, and she’s known ever since she was in high school that she wants to be a writer. Her first guest post was about using assistive technology to vote in her first presidential election and was published here four years ago. A lot has happened in Sandra’s life the past four years, and she’s back with another guest post to give you the latest.

Networking to beat the startling odds

by Sandra Murillo

“How’s the job search going?” I’ve heard that question from family and friends many times during the last few months. I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in December with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and like any recent college graduate, I’m in the process of looking for a job, or, at the very least, an internship.

U of I graduate Sandra Murillo.

U of I graduate Sandra Murillo.

I, however, am not your average recent college graduate. I also happen to be blind. This means that finding a job can present some, shall we say, additional hardships. It’s not that I can’t get on the Internet to look for jobs or type resumés and personal statements independently. No, it’s much more complicated than that. Even though legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in the workplace, there are still many misconceptions that prevent many of us from being hired. Sadly, many employers believe that we are not capable of doing a job as efficiently as our sighted counterparts.

According to the American Foundation for the Blind, about 75 percent of blind and visually impaired adults are unemployed in the United States. I find this ironic, given that technology helps us be more productive and independent now more than ever before. I use my talking computer to send and receive Emails, type articles and blog posts and browse the web. The computer’s robotic voice announces each letter as I type and reads out loud what’s on the computer screen. I am bilingual, and my talking computer’s robotic voice even speaks Spanish for me when I want it to!

Journalism involves interviewing people, and I’ve learned to record the interviews with a digital recorder. That way I can make sure I won’t miss a good quote or bit of information. In some ways my blindness allows me to be a better listener during interviews. I can concentrate more on what’s being said rather than the visuals of the person or place. These and other tools have helped me in my job search.

Besides asking friends and family to keep an eye out for job leads, I also go online to sites like I was also very fortunate to come across Career Connect, a website developed by the American Foundation for the Blind specifically for blind or visually impaired job seekers. It is full of helpful information on how to write resumés and personal statements, tips on how to make job interviews go smoothly and even information for employers.

I’ve known I wanted to be a journalist since I was a sophomore in high school. I think it’s a great career because I will get to do two of the things I enjoy the most: writing and informing and educating others. I have a particular interest in writing about people with disabilities — I feel we still need to educate the general public about our struggles and capabilities. Maybe that way employers will not be as skeptical about hiring blind and visually impaired people.

Meanwhile, I plan to continue on my job search, and I hope I will not be part of that startling 75 percent of blind and visually impaired people without a job for long.

And now, a word from a puppy raiser

When I published that post about the Ann Taylor store telling Becky Andrews she couldn’t come in with her guide dog, a lot of you commented and wondered how a business could be so ignorant. Donna Sword, a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence, left a response that suggested sometimes it’s negative experiences with fake service dogs that make business owners more wary. I asked her to expand that thought into a guest blog, and she graciously said yes.

Masquerading as an assistance dog

by Donna Sword

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects the rights of a person with a disability to bring their service animal with them in public, and it defines a service animal as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” I do not have a disability, so I rely on the good faith of businesses to welcome my pup-in-training in their stores to support our socialization efforts.

Donna Sword with her current Canine Companions for Independence pup-in-training, Yaxley (Photo courtesy of Donna Sword).

On the rare occasions when we’re met with resistance by a business, we sometimes find it’s because of a past negative experience with a fake service dog. These folk that bring their beloved, but ill mannered, pets into stores perhaps don’t realize the barriers they’re creating for those who rely on guide dogs or assistance dogs for independence. And we’ve seen these pets on our own outings.

The dog under a restaurant table that first growled, then stood and barked aggressively, as the pup and I walked past. The small dog in the front seat of a grocery cart, standing to alert with a tense mouth when children approached too closely. A Chihuahua in a handbag at a concert, invisible except when barking. And the large dog at the mall that took two hands to control as he lunged to sniff passersby.

Each one of these dogs was wearing a vest that identified them as a type of assistance dog. But were they assistance dogs — or instead pets masquerading as such? To a business owner, there’s not a big difference. Whether it’s due to inadequate training or a personality not suited for service dog work, it’s the same. These dogs are seen as potential liabilities. Will these dogs cause customer complaints, a loss of business? Will they have a toileting accident in the restaurant? And rather worrisome, will these particular dogs inflict damage, personal or otherwise?

I find it interesting, and more than a bit distressing, that an assistance dog cape can be purchased online, complete with certification documents. A Google search will net you several companies that require only a credit card and a dog; no proof of training required. And rather ironically, the ADA does not require working dogs to display any identification nor is an individual required to have their dog certified as an assistance animal. This opens the door to abuse of the law, it seems. Unless challenged, anyone may claim their pet as an assistance dog.

This is wrong.

And so of course, businesses are cautious. And maybe just a bit confused. While the ADA laws are clearly written on the access rights of individuals, some businesses just aren’t educating themselves or their employees. They don’t know that an ill-behaved dog (whether it is a service dog or not)) can be asked to leave their place of business. Or that there are some questions they can legally ask, such as “is the service dog required because of a disability?” or even “what task has the dog been trained to perform?” One question businesses can not ask an individual is “what is your disability?”

A highly trained assistance dog or guide dog is not a pet. They are constant companions and loved by their handlers, that’s for sure, but these dogs are also necessary, a sort of “assistive technology” allowing a higher level of independence.

I’m afraid we’ve allowed the bad behavior of a few to build these barriers for those who rely on these dogs. I agree that many businesses have a need for more education on ADA, but there is also a need to crack down on these fake service dogs. And on the companies out there selling service dog capes and certifications making it too easy to allow public access to pets.

Good thing Harper’s not a monkey

That's Harper doing his thing at a nearby street corner.

If you have a disability and want to bring your helper parrot, monkey or snake with you in public, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. starting today, March 15, 2011, only service dogs and trained miniature horses are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. These ADA revisions were drawn up after some disability advocates asked the Department of Justice to crack down on people who were faking or exaggerating disabilities in order to get their companion animals into places of public accommodation. I wrote a post for today’s Bark Blog about all this – here’s an excerpt:

It really does make it harder for the rest of us when an animal or his handler’s poor behavior causes people to think badly about service animals. I’ve heard stories about helper parrots pecking at shoppers in stores, a therapeutic rat that quelled anxiety in his owner but caused anxiety to others, and comfort pigs going crazy on airplanes. In my own life, however, the only negative service animal stories that have affected me personally have been about…dogs.

The last time I went to a Cubs game I was stopped while trying to get into Wrigley Field with my Seeing Eye dog. The man taking tickets said he didn’t know if the dog was allowed. I pointed to the harness, told him she was a Seeing Eye dog. He was skeptical.

Turns out that a week earlier someone had brought their puppy to Wrigley, claiming the dog was a service dog. The dog misbehaved, and fans sitting nearby complained. After that, the people working the gates were told to scrutinize anyone coming in with a service dog.

Faking a disability to gain privilege is fraud. It also results in increased scrutiny of people with legitimate disabilities. You can link to the Bark Blog to read my guest post in its entirety. Bonus: there’s an awfully cute photo of Harper and me there, too – it was taken when we were just getting to know each other at the Seeing Eye.

Celebrating the ADA in today’s Chicago Tribune

Last month I wrote a post linking to an article in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin about Jocelyn Snower, a woman who was fired after her boss realized she was blind. In the post, I wondered how this could have happened. In the comments, I saw that my blog readers wondered, too. And so, I found Jocelyn’s phone number and gave her a call.

Jocelyn Snower

The lilt of Jocelyn’s voice tells you she smiles a lot. The words she says tells you she thinks a lot. It was easy to understand why the owner of Balance Staffing would want to hire her, and difficult to understand why he’d let her go.

Jocelyn started losing her sight when she was 18. “When it happened, it just changed everything,” she said over the phone. “You lose some of your independence, and you lose your idea of who you are. One day you’re perfect, and then the next day you have – what seemed to me, anyway – a big imperfection.” Jocelyn acknowledged that her visual impairment is a part of who she is now. “But it only impacts my life when I let it, it doesn’t stop me from doing anything I want to do.”

Jocelyn still has enough usable vision to ride a bike, and she doesn’t use a white cane or a guide dog. Her visual impairment was not mentioned during the interview. After hiring her, the business owner communicated with Jocelyn by phone and had no complaints about her work.

But then she was asked to fax him some HR paperwork. Her position as a job recruiter did not require her to drive, but the form asked for a copy of her driver’s license. She used her official State of Illinois ID instead, and the business owner started asking around. When a co-worker confirmed Jocelyn couldn’t see well enough to drive, the business owner fired her.

What. A. Story. The minute I hung up the phone I got right to work writing an op-ed piece about all this to submit to the Chicago Tribune. My hope was that they’d like it enough to run it in tomorrow’s paper: July 26 is the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Op-Ed editor at the Tribune wrote me right back. They’d publish it, alright, but they’d do me one better. A law that sadly still needs to be on the books is in today’s paper. The Sunday Edition. Wayyyyy more people read the Sunday paper than the other ones, which means wayyyyy more people are going to hear about Jocelyn Snower’s story, and that makes me wayyyyy happy today. . I’ll end with a bit from the piece, but I do hope you’ll link to today’s Sunday Chicago Tribune to read it in its entirety:

Snower decided she might be better off working for herself. She runs her own successful job recruiting business now, specializing in finding nannies.

Still, she wanted the business owner to know he’d done the wrong thing when he let her go. So she took her case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC alleged that the owner revoked Snower’s job offer the minute he found out she was blind, even though she had already been working successfully for him.

Last month a federal judge here in Chicago entered a consent decree requiring Balance Staffing to pay Snower $100,000. The judge’s decision was good news, Snower said. “But really, I felt I’d already won when the EEOC decided to take on my case,” she said. “It meant they believed me. They knew I could work. They knew I’d done a good job.”

Amen. Happy anniversary, ADA!


Woman gets fired after employer figures out she’s blind

Blind justiceI swear, when I first heard about this I thought it had to be a story from The Onion. A federal judge here in Chicago has entered a consent decree requiring a company to pay $100,000 to a woman whose job offer was revoked after the company’s owner realized she is blind.

How did this happen? Did the woman apply on line? Was she hired, ahem, sight unseen? Was the owner simply not paying attention when the blind woman showed up for the interview? Was she interviewed over the phone?

According to a (subscription only) story in the Chicago Law Bulletin, Jocelyn Snower was hired as a recruiter by the owner of Balance Staffing and had already worked a couple of months before the owner realized she doesn’t have 20/20 vision.

“What’s unique about Jocelyn is that she’s legally blind, but she doesn’t use a walking stick or guide dog, or anything like that,” { trial attorney Laura R. }Feldman said. “When I first met her, I had no idea she was blind.”

The EEOC attorneys said Snower started working for the staffing company in June 2006 and that on Aug. 9, 2006, she received notification that her job offer had been revoked. They contended that the owner of the staffing company found out through another employee that the woman was blind, specifically that she couldn’t drive.

Okay, let’s review. This woman had gone through the application process, passed the interview, was offered the job, and had worked for two months. She must have been capable, right?

“It’s the EEOC’s position that she did not need to drive for the job — that there’s great public transportation, and she takes public transportation,” Feldman said.

{ EEOC supervisory trial attorney Diane I.} Smason said the woman served as a recruiter in the past at other companies, and she had already proved to be a capable recruiter despite her disability.

The EEOC alleged that the owner revoked Jocelyn’s job offer the minute he found out she was blind, even though she had already started recruiting for him. The EEOC further alleged that the defendants refused to pay Jocelyn wages for hours of work that she already performed, because of her disability.

I didn’t use a white cane or a guide dog when I first started losing my sight. I quit driving or riding my bike, but I could still see well enough to walk to work. Most of my day was spent counseling college students on study abroad options, I could have done that with my eyes closed. As my eyesight got worse, though, I started making mistakes in the office. I still remember spilling grounds all over the place on my way to make the morning coffee. I had to sit close to my computer screen to see the words. I ran into tabletops. At one point my boss took me aside and told me I wouldn’t be going to the annual convention with my colleagues. “You’ll embarrass the office,” she said. Months later, my contract was terminated.

But that was way back in 1985, before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. This is the 21st century. An employer today would never dream of firing someone simply because they couldn’t see well enough to drive, would they?

The defense, which denied the allegations, was represented by Seyfarth, Shaw LLP partners Gerald L. Maatman Jr., and Christopher J. DeGroff, along with associate Brandon L. Spurlock. They could not be reached for comment.

Sticking to “The Story”

Tune in to The Story….Mike and I took a slight detour on our way to the Wisconsin Book Festival on Friday. An NPR show called The Story had contacted me earlier in the week and we had to stop at a studio Friday morning to record an interview. If you’ve never heard The Story, here’s a description of the show from the Serious Radio web site:

The Story is a daily interview program designed to bring great stories to public radio midday’s in a way that will help listeners understand what is going on in their world and why it matters to them. A veteran radio journalist, Dick Gordon interviews people whose real-life experiences help us understand the news of the day or ongoing issues of importance.

The Story originates on North Carolina Public Radio, so Dick Gordon, the show’s host, was in Chapel Hill during Friday’s interview. Me? I sat alone with Hanni in a recording booth in Evanston, IL. The sound man, seated in another room behind a plate of glass, says if you listen carefully you’ll hear Hanni’s harness jiggle as she settles in at the beginning of the taping. She slept for the rest of the hour. She’d heard this all before.

The interview questions centered on my working life. Before losing my sight, I had a job advising college students who wanted to study overseas. The job entailed talking with students, checking out what programs might work for them, phoning different college departments or other universities to arrange for the transfer of college credits. I was sure I’d be able to perform these tasks without being able to see. My boss, however, was equally sure I could not. My contract was terminated. My confidence was shattered. How could I have been so naive? Did I really think I was worth hiring? Why would anyone employ someone who couldn’t see?

That all happened in 1986. The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law four years later. It took a while for me to get the gumption to apply for work again, but once I did I met up with some pretty wonderful, flexible employers. A series of part-time jobs helped rebuild my confidence back up. So much so, that in 1999 I took a job many others would never dare try: I modeled nude for University art students. An essay I wrote about the experience was published in alternative newspapers all over the country, and my new career was launched. No, silly. I did not become a professional nude model. I became a professional writer.

The Story is doing a special series called “What’s Working Who’s Working,” and my guess is that when my interview airs, it will be featured in that series. The Story is distributed nationally by American Public Media. It can be heard in North Carolina on WUNC-FM and WRQM-FM (90.9) in Rocky Mount. The show can also be heard on other stations across the U.S. including WBEZ in Chicago and KPCC in Los Angeles. Not sure yet when my particular segment will air, so stay tuned — I’ll let you know as soon as I find out.

Helper Parrots & Guide Horses: Where to Draw the Line?

Yesterday’s Day to Day programon National Public Radio (NPR) aired a story called Helper Parrots, Guide Horses Face Legal Challenges.

Day to Day, January 2, 2009 • Chances are you’ve seen a blind person accompanied by a guide dog.  But what about a guide horse, a service parrot or a monkey trained to help an agoraphobic?

These are just a few of the nontraditional service animals that are used across the country to help people with disabilities and psychological disorders.

As their uses are expanding, however, the government is considering a proposal that would limit the definition of “service animal” to “a dog or other common domestic animal.”

Day to Day host Alex Cohen interviewed Rebecca Skloot, the author of an article in the New York Times Magazine called Creature Comforts – Assistance Animals Now Come in All Shapes and Sizes.

Rebecca Skloot outlines why many people are upset about the pending law. Sometimes less familiar animals make better helpers, she tells Alex Cohen.The NPR story described how Sadie, a parrot, helps a man who suffers from bipolar disorder.  The parrot can sense when he is on the verge of a psychotic episode and talk him down. Richard, a bonnet macaque monkey, helps a woman get through the day without debilitating panic attacks.  And Panda, a miniature guide horse, guides a woman who is blind.

Skloot spent many hours observing how a miniature horse named Panda helped a blind woman named Ann Edie.  Even after all her preparatory research, Skloot was blown away.

“I could sort of envision how a horse could guide a person. But the level at which Panda guides her is amazing. In just a few blocks, I saw her maneuver around things that I, as a person that’s sighted, wouldn’t have thought of.”

When it comes to getting into airports, restaurants and other public places with a service animal, the ADA allows employees to ask a person if the animal is a service animal, and if the animal is required because of a disability. Documentation of the person’s disability or the animal’s training can NOT be required as a condition for providing service to an individual accompanied by a service animal.

In other words, people don’t have to prove they are disabled or that their pets are service animals in order to have those animals accompany them into a public place. All a person has to do is claim a disability and say their pet has been trained to provide assistance. No questions asked.

This is just one of many reasons the government is considering revising the definition of “service animal” in the American’s with Disabilities Act – it’s not simply because bigoted dog lovers want to keep other animals off the list.

A piece I wrote for The Bark about a teenager who sat next to me on a plane helps explain:

“I’m an only child. Rusty’s like a brother to me.”
Unwilling to have their German Shepherd fly as cargo on family vacations, her dad came up with a solution. “My dad wears sunglasses,” she said with a laugh. “He acts like he’s blind, and pretends our German Shepherd is a Seeing Eye dog.  He even, like, had somebody at the leather shop make one of those harness things for Rusty.”  She was really laughing now. Can you believe that?”

I could. In fact, this was the second time I’d been given a firsthand account of someone faking blindness to get a dog into an airport. I’ve heard stories, too, about people faking or exaggerating other maladies in order to get their animals on board with them.

“We are getting more and more complaints about service dogs,” a specialist on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) information line told me. She said that most complaints come from business owners. People with guard dogs, attack dogs, therapy dogs, companion dogs, and even security dogs are calling their dogs “service” animals to get them special privileges. “We just tell businesses to let the dogs in,” she said. “Otherwise they’re asking for a lawsuit.”

I guess “reasonable accommodation” is just a one-way street, then? Doesn’t seem fair to me.

Those of us with legitimate service animals suffer when others fake or exaggerate a disability so they can bring their pets wherever they go. Last year I was stopped while trying to get into a Cubs game at Wrigley Field with Hanni. The man taking tickets said he didn’t know if the dog was allowed. I pointed to Hanni’s harness, told him she was a Seeing Eye dog. He was skeptical.

Turns out that a week earlier someone had brought their puppy to Wrigley, claiming the dog was a service dog. The dog misbehaved, and fans sitting nearby complained. After that, the people working the gates were told to scrutinize anyone coming in with a service dog.

In addition to being despicable, faking a disability to gain privilege is fraud. It also results in increased scrutiny of people with legitimate disabilities. I’ve had this happen at Crate and Barrel on Michigan Avenue. And at Andy’s Jazz Club on Hubbard. At Jimmy John’s Sandwich Shop on State Street.

I was stopped at the door at each place. At the first two, the doorman checked with a supervisor before letting me through. At Jimmy John’s, they just kicked Hanni and me out. We haven’t been back.

The Seeing Eye is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. As the very first school in the US to train guide dogs for the blind, Seeing Eye pioneers worked long and hard to open the doors and give our dogs public access. I can tell you stories and stories of people who have faked blindness or other disabilities to get their pet dogs into public places. I have no problem allowing qualified service animals of any type – horses, monkeys, parrots — into public places with their disabled human companions. I just worry that opening ADA legislation to even more animals who may not truly be qualified could possibly ruin the good name our Seeing Eye pioneers have worked so hard to build over the years.

You can read more about the proposed legislation in Skloot’s article in The New York Times Magazine and see photos of her blog.

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