Ripley and I are out in the world so often, that I must preface this post by saying that the vast majority of the time we are treated very well. Store owners are gracious and kind, and respectful of our working relationship. However, that can make it even more of a jolt when we run into outright hostility. Nothing can change the mood of a casual outing so quickly as an icy encounter.
Today we were invited to go to Kirin, a Chinese restaurant in Santa Rosa, to celebrate the birthday of a friend. It was to be a large gathering, about twenty people. My friend Wendy agreed to drive me to the lunch, and we were the first to arrive. We waited a bit in the parking lot, until a couple of other women showed up. Then I headed for the front door. Ripley and I were the first to step inside, with Wendy close behind.
As soon as we crossed the threshold, the manager came forward and blocked our passage. Without saying a word, he began looking disapprovingly from me to Ripley, back and forth. He shook his head repeatedly, still mute, making hand gestures indicating that we would not be allowed access.
I said, “She’s a service dog. It’s the law. You have to let her in.” No response. I have in the past a few times run into problems in restaurants and stores managed by people who are first-generation immigrants. They have come from countries where service dogs are not a familiar concept, and are sometimes unaware of local laws. I thought this might be a similar situation, and tried to deal with this as I had dealt with it before. I showed him my Medic-Alert bracelet, and said, “I have a disability.” Still, not a word from him. I was beginning to wonder if language might be part of our problem. I tried several more times to state my case. Nothing. Then I reached to Ripley’s vest, and unzipped a pocket. I pulled out a copy of the Americans with Disabilities Act Business Brief, a one-page sheet that explains what rights and responsibilities businesses have with regards to service dogs. On other occasions, I have used this successfully to help with communications, as sometimes reading is easier than speaking.
As I attempted to hand the paper to him, he finally spoke. “I don’t need any papers,” he said, in very clear English, still with a disapproving and unhappy look on his face. “What I want to know is how the dog assists you. Does it guide you to the table?” Then I knew what I was up against – he knew all about service dogs. He just did not believe that I needed one. Legally, he was asking the one question that a business person can ask: “What tasks does the dog perform?” But he should have asked it the moment I walked in the door. Not kept me standing there, flustered and confused for three minutes, feeling judged.
At this point, several other members of my party had begun to gather behind us. I knew stating tasks at that point wouldn’t be enough. I said, “I have a condition called periodic paralysis disorder.” He was barely listening to me. But several women behind me began to speak up. “She’s a service dog. We have seen what she does.” Realizing that it was going to turn into a scene if he pursued it, the manager threw up his hands, and said, “There are two tables. Go ahead,” and walked away from us.
I felt terrible. We were in, but not welcome. I chose a seat at the end of the long table. The tables had large, round metal supports, so Ripley could not sit underneath. I had her lie down just alongside me at the head of the table. There was a small chest right behind her, creating a a narrow space for her that was protected. It was easy for the wait staff to walk around the chest and still get to every seat at our table to serve. Yet at one point, the manager tried to cut through that space, and couldn’t, seeing Ripley, and again, I saw the exasperation and hostility on his face.
It’s so hard to know what to do when finding oneself in situations like this. Part of me wants to stay, to prove a point. Damn it, I have every right to be here, and I will be here. I should be here to maybe make it better for the next service dog/handler team. And the other part of me says, why should I stay where I am not wanted?
We compromised. We stayed for most of the meal, but we were the first to leave. I felt a huge wave of relief when we stepped out the front door.
And I had to remind myself that this is an anomaly, and not the norm. For which I am sincerely grateful.