Disability rights for people who are blind in this country started with actions that most states took decades before the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) passed. According to the National Association of Dog Guide Users, “The United States of America was the first country to pass laws protecting the right of blind individuals to enter public establishments, and to travel on all modes of public transportation accompanied by a guide dog. The first of these were passed in the middle part of the 20th Century.” Over the years with federal legislation such as the ADA, whose 25th anniversary we are celebrating this week, Federal Air Carrier Access Act, and the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, disability rights have become the “law of the land.” But I will always remember my first encounter with the “uninformed” public and sense of empowerment I have as a result of our hard-won rights.
Second Night of Our Marriage
That night,we went to a restaurant in Nashville. I described the incident in Chapter 20 of my book Out of the Whirlpool as follows:
“Later, after a brunch in the lodge, we continued north towards Tennessee. Somehow, I had forgotten my ‘get away bag,’ as my mother called it. It was packed with my toiletries and the nightgown that I was supposed to have worn on Jim’s and my first night as a married couple. It made absolutely no difference to us. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have bothered with the nightgown even if I had it with me. My parents put the suitcase on a bus Sunday morning, so our first stop, before going on to our apartment in Smyrna, was the Nashville Greyhound station. After we collected the suitcase, Jim suggested we go out to dinner. As we entered the restaurant, a waiter said, “You can’t bring that dog in here.” I waited for Jim to come to my defense and explain it to the waiter. This was what southern gentlemen did. They took care of an unpleasantness. But Jim said not one word.”
“‘Um, she’s a Seeing Eye dog,’ I began tentatively. That made no impression whatsoever on the waiter.”
“‘Take her outside at once and tie her up,’ he commanded. Glancing in Jim’s direction for courage which, incidentally, you don’t have to see in order to receive, I said in a much stronger voice, ‘No, she’s a Seeing Eye dog. You have to let me in with her.’ Then I rummaged in my purse for the legislation handbook they had given me at Seeing Eye. Handing it to Jim I said, ‘Show him the page for Tennessee.’ Taking the booklet, Jim found the correct page and handed it to the waiter. The waiter read it and relented. We were allowed into the restaurant after all.”
“After an otherwise uneventful dinner, Jim and I finally arrived at our apartment in Smyrna. The next day, I went to work at The Tennessee Rehabilitation Center. In the space of five days, I had brought my first Seeing Eye dog home, gotten married, moved to a new home in a new state, defended myself to a waiter who didn’t know the law, and started a new job. I didn’t do things by halves, oh no.”
When we lived in Maine we went to the local McDonalds mid-morning to meet some friends. Keep in mind that McDonalds has signs on every door, or they used to, that say guide dogs are welcome. So I walk in the door and this guy stops me and tells me I can’t bring my dog in. At first I thought he was joking. He introduced himself as the manager and repeated that I couldn’t bring my dog in the restaurant. Once I got it, that he really was the manager and he really was denying me access, I directed my dog to go around him, and headed for the line. As I passed him I hesitated and said, “I’m going to get a cup of coffee and sit down. If you have a problem with that I suggest you call the police.” Nothing happened. A few weeks later I got a call from the regional manager who apologized and gave me a whole fist full of gift certificates.
Thai Restaurant in Maine
I walked in the door and the hostess said I couldn’t bring my dog in. I tried explaining but she was clearly terrified. She said she’d have to call her attorney. Jim asked if she needed help contacting her attorney. She was getting more and more wound up so we left. The following Monday I called the school and asked them to contact the restaurant and do their thing.
I didn’t have a reason to go back to the restaurant until a couple of years later. I called ahead this time. It wouldn’t have been necessary. They knew the law by then!