It happened again. Again I was told I could not be in a public place because I had my service dog with me. This time it was the Post Office and it wasn’t the first time it happened in that building.
Almost five years ago, while I waited in a long pre-Christmas line, a Post Office clerk began to yell at me from across the room. Funny thing about hearing loss: yelling does not make things easier to understand, it simply amplifies distortion creating a bigger communication problem. I had no idea what this person was trying to tell me, but the man standing next to me did and boy, oh boy, was he upset. I heard him yelling back to the clerk that my dog was a (clearly identified) service dog and had the legal right to access all public places. The two of them went at it for a while and I stood between them, my head moving from one to the other as if I were a spectator at a tennis match. The clerk gave in, I was “allowed” to conduct my postal business and I left.
Following that incident I filed a complaint with the United States Postal Service and wrote a scathing letter about the incident to the local paper’s editor. The end result was an apology from the USPS and wording on their entry door changed from “No Dogs Allowed” to “Only Dogs Assisting People Who Are Blind or Deaf Allowed”. This of course is also inaccurate, but I let it slide.
Then, five problem-free years later, I walked up to the desk, greeted the clerk and asked to buy stamps. The clerk responded by asking if my dog is a Seeing Eye dog.
“No,” I answered.
“Only Seeing Eye dogs can be in here,” she said with conviction, looking toward the person waiting behind me with a smile.
This time, close enough to carry on a conversation, I smiled and began my teachable moment. I explained about Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act which governs accessibility to all federal facilities and the Americans with Disabilities Act which lends some concepts to the interpretation of 504. I explained that the law covered all dogs providing assistance to anyone with a disability including people who have diabetes, seizure disorders, mobility disabilities, cardiac problems…
“Well,” she said dismissively, “I’ll have to check that, they only told us about Seeing Eye dogs.”
“You can trust me on this,” I continued, “Section 504 does not limit access to people who are blind.” I did not try to explain that Seeing Eye was simply the name of a school that trains dogs to help people who are blind and that the correct term is guide dog. I was afraid that was too much for her to absorb.
I bought my stamps and thanked her. She wished me a blessed day. Then I came home and filed a complaint with the USPS.
The following day I got a phone call from someone at the local post office inquiring about my problem. I explained the incident and the caller said, “Well, that’s how it was explained to us, that it could only be Seeing Eye dogs.”
I replied, “Wow, because Section 504 has been around since 1973 and the ADA has been around more than 22 years. They aren’t exactly new developments.”
“Sometimes they don’t get around to posting updates,” she countered.
No updates in 39 years? Really?
She promised to “check on it” and that was the end of her half-baked apology.
But here’s the thing: not only is there ongoing ignorance about laws governing accessibility for people with disabilities at the post office, not only did nobody get it right five years ago when I first complained, but once again I was challenged publicly in front of other people. Once again a clerk opted to call me out rather than find a quiet, more diplomatic way to deal with what they wrongly believed to be a problem.
How can I explain what this is like and how bad it is? Substitute race for disability. Imagine a person who is Black is treated similarly in a public place. They are told they cannot be there because of their race. When they counter citing chapter and verse of various civil rights laws applicable to race, they are told what I’d been told: “That’s how it was explained to us.”
There is no excuse for ignorance of major civil rights laws whether they cover race or disability. Saying you didn’t know about a law that has been around 22, 39 or 48 years is absurd.
Let’s say you ran a red light and were stopped by a police officer. You tell the officer, “I didn’t know it really was illegal to ignore a red light.” What are the chances the officer will let you go with a warning to brush up on your traffic laws? Yet this is what people expect when they claim ignorance of civil right laws. They expect a free pass, an admonition to do better next time.
As a result, nothing really changes.
It is incumbent on business owners to have basic knowledge of such laws. It is their job to train all personnel adequately. That means employees who are unsure of the scope of the law should find out before challenging customers. That means employees should learn how to discuss the issue with customers in a non-threatening way that does not embarrass the customer publicly.
When a customer complains, especially when it turns out the customer is correct, fix things. Fix them now and apologize. When you apologize, make it sincere and show the customer how things have been fixed. Thank them for bringing the problem to your attention.
When you handle such a situation correctly you avoid losing customers. Given their current financial state, the USPS really should take note.