This is the story of two very different dining experiences.
Three of us decided to go out to lunch. A Chinese restaurant was suggested and I agreed although with some trepidation. It has been my experience that restaurants operated by people of other cultures, particularly people who were not born in the United States, more frequently resist having assistance dogs in their dining rooms.
I entered the restaurant with muscles tensed, prepared for a confrontation and prepared to have to explain why my dog could accompany me. The fear and tension were unnecessary.
Almost immediately an Asian woman called out “Merry Christmas! Look at you, gorgeous!” Quickly I surmised she wasn’t addressing me, but my assistance dog who is indeed gorgeous. Although I could not hear what she said next, it was obvious she was explaining to other employees that my dog is a professional and was allowed to be there. Then she turned to me and said as though she were bragging about him, “He’s a specially trained dog, right?” I agreed with her, understanding that this was code for “he’s an assistance dog and not some poseur, right?”
There was no challenge, just a welcome. We were clearly welcome in that place of business.
A week later we walked through the doors of a local barbeque place we’d never tried. Following instructions on a sign we seated ourselves and got my dog settled as much under the table as the table would allow. While we perused the menus the owner came by, bent over my chair and asked, “Is that a guide dog because people are asking questions?”
Mind you, I was reading the menu when she asked, but knowing that anything is possible I told her my dog is a service dog, a term better understood than assistance dog.
Then she said, “OK, because guide dogs and service dogs are OK”.
“OK,” I replied.
“Yes, the dog is OK,” she said again.
“OK,” I said.
While at that point I wanted to yell, “Yes, I know my dog is OK and I know he is allowed to be here because the law says he can be here and I don’t really need your permission” I simply said again, “OK” and she left. We ate our meal without incident, but received the bill before anyone asked if we wanted their famous cobbler. I would have said yes to that!
What’s the difference between the two experiences? At the first restaurant the woman who greeted me and my dog was educated about working dogs and their ability to be in a restaurant. Beyond that I was not challenged or questioned I was welcomed in a way that got the big question, is this dog legitimate, out of the way.
The second restaurant’s owner wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do or how to go about doing it. She did not understand the variety of jobs held by assistance dogs thinking, as many people do, that the only true working dogs are those who help people who are blind. I was left feeling awkward and not very welcome, especially since the early arrival of the bill made us think we were being pushed out the door.
These stories illustrate inclusion and a lack of inclusion. Yes, the second restaurant was physically accessible to me and I was allowed to eat a meal with my dog beside me, however I should not have felt as if I were being “allowed” to be there. I should have felt as if I had been welcomed by the staff, as if they wanted both me and my very professional dog to be there.
Inclusion is all about welcoming people. How do you welcome people with disabilities at your business?