Monday, February 1, 2016

Mark of the Neon Green

Yesterday Debby, Trooper and I drove to the Chicago Botanic Garden, one of our favorite haunts. As we arrived at the visitor center, a woman at the desk beckoned us over.

“Is that a service dog?” she said, even though Trooper prominently wore his bright orange “Dogs for the Deaf” vest, as he always does in public.

“Yes,” Debby replied behind me, knowing I hadn’t understood the woman.

“May I see your credentials?” she said.

I just looked at her and didn't respond. Demanding identification of service dog teams is a no-no, according to Justice Department guidelines for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Wear these,” she said, handing me two large round neon green “Chicago Botanic Garden” stick-on tags.

Without really thinking, I took them and put one on my lapel and one on Trooper’s vest.

Outside, I turned to Debby and said, “Hey, that was illegal.” I'm sometimes slow on the uptake. But then I'm 75 and slow at everything.

The ADA guidelines say that a service dog team needs to wear no identification of any kind as well as possess no credentials. Medical information about disabilities—a service dog is legally an item of medical equipment—is private.

All anyone is permitted to ask is whether the dog is a trained service animal, and what task the dog is trained to perform for the handler.

I don’t mind if the public knows I’m deaf. At my age that’s not a bad idea. Hence Trooper wears his vest and orange “Hearing Dog” leash and collar whenever we’re out and about.

But as Debby, Trooper and I strode over the bridge to Evening Island, I began to feel awfully conspicuous with those neon green tags, like Hester Prynne wearing that scarlet letter through downtown Boston. 

“On the way back I’m going to have a talk with that lady,” I said.

And so I did. It was a quiet and civil conversation.

“Requiring that we wear these tags is illegal,” I said, as pleasantly as I could.

“We want you to wear this so people won’t challenge you,” she replied.

“Thank you,” I said, “but that’s their problem, not mine.”

We left, telling her we hoped she would take our advice and study up on the Justice Department's service dog FAQ, and perhaps Garden management would as well.

Part of the problem, it turned out later, is the Garden's own published policy (found on a dark cranny of its web site). It says:

"Service animals are permitted on Garden grounds. No pets please. Please understand that our Security personnel are often unable to discern service animals from pets and may approach you for verification during your visit. To show that an animal is a service animal, and provide you with the best visitor experience, we suggest that you bring one of the following with you on your visit: animal ID card, harness or tags, or written documentation. If you are not displaying an identifier and would like to be issued a temporary identifier, please visit the Information Desk when arriving on grounds."

Good thing that these are only suggestions, perhaps devised by a lawyer to finesse the ADA and shift the onus of identification to dog and handler.

But they're not really solutions. Identification, harness, tags and documentation often are falsified by people to pass off their pets as service animals. All security guards can legally do for verification is to ask those aforementioned two questions—and to watch the behavior of the dogs. If they growl or bark or otherwise threaten public safety, they can be banished.

Possibly the woman at the desk had been overzealous in interpreting the Garden's policy, but I believe that policy is mistaken in the first place. The burden of proof should never be on dog and handler. 

I’m going to suggest to Garden management that it drop those identification "suggestions" and make abundantly clear to service-dog visitors as well as its staff and volunteers that those neon green tags are an option, not a requirement.

As for me, to get "the best visitor experience," I’ll just rely on Trooper’s orange. Neon green clashes with it, anyway.


  1. I'm very curious to hear what Garden management has to say regarding this issue. Hopefully they will thank you for educating them and revise their policy accordingly!

  2. I assume you are going to draw Garden management's attention to your thoughtful, detailed and clear blog posting. Do update us on their response.