Saturday, April 8, 2017

Our latest adventures

Trooper on the train. This photo reminds me of Chessie the Cat (below), the mascot of the old Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, used in advertising the railroad's comfortable sleeping cars.

Trooper, Debby and are just back from a successful week’s visit by train to the East Coast. In it we connected with our family in Arlington (Va.) and performed some more hands-on research for the book-in-progress, an “adventuring handbook.” Its title: Places We Have Peed: Traveling with a Service Dog in North America.

I’m writing it with Chris Goodier, another service dog handler, who lives in Sarasota, Fla. She’s doing the sections on cruising and RVing, I’m writing about riding the train, and we’re sharing the reporting on other modes of travel, such as flying and local transportation.

Naturally our individual adventures are going into the book, and on this most recent trip I collected a couple that are worth mentioning.

In Washington, D.C., I used my iPhone’s Uber app to summon rides hither and yon, and that mostly worked very well. Trooper’s presence was never challenged. It’s illegal to refuse a ride to a passenger with a service dog, and doing so also violates Uber’s policies. I kept Trooper on my lap and off the seat, pleasing the drivers.

Except once. When the arriving driver spotted Trooper, he immediately put the pedal to the metal and sped off for parts unknown. The Uber app told me, as it always does, the make of car, the license number, and the driver’s photograph and name: Mohammad.

Mohammad may have had an unpleasant experience with a service animal, real or fake, and didn’t want a repetition. Or he may have been allergic. Or he may have had religious scruples about having a dog in his car. Many Muslims consider dogs unclean. I don’t know the truth, although I have a suspicion. But he did violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I canceled the ride and called another Uber. It came in less than five minutes.

I’m still debating with myself whether to inform Uber headquarters about Mohammad’s refusal to pick me up.

Whatever the reason, my deaf attorney friends tell me, illegal refusals to transport service animals should always be reported and a lawsuit filed if relief is not forthcoming.

But what about a driver’s right to practice his religion (if that is what it was)? It seems to me that two competing rights may be colliding here, and one of them has to give.

Practically speaking, the incident happened during midday when people were out and about, not in the dark of night when other Uber cars might have been scarce. I was not in the least bit endangered. I had been only mildly inconvenienced.

Should I, however, stand on principle? The courts did in siding against an evangelical Christian baker who refused to produce a wedding cake for a gay marriage. In American commerce, religious beliefs never  trump the civil rights of the customers.

Mohammad, I understand. But you need to understand, too. If ever I encounter you again, I will try to educate, not litigate. We can come to a compromise: Trooper will sit in my lap and not touch your car in any way. Okay?

APRIL 10. I managed to get through to Uber's help line, which actually has a listing for "service dog issues," and reported the incident, asking Uber to inform the driver of his obligations. Later Uber replied: "At the conclusion of our investigation, the partner you reported on 4/8/2017 has been provided with additional information regarding legal obligations and their Uber account has been reactivated. They have confirmed that they understand their legal obligations. Should we receive a second report of this nature, their account may be subject to permanent deactivation."

That's good enough for me.

By the way, to my question about service dogs too big to hold on one's lap, Uber said: "Partners are encouraged to carry a towel or a blanket with them in their vehicle for transporting animals. Because they may have an allergy, as well as other riders who may have allergies, they may choose to place a blanket over the seats. This is at their own discretion."

The second event involved a well-known national chain hotel in New Orleans. Upon checking in, I was presented with a document titled “ADA Service Dog Agreement” to sign.

I've seen this before. Such documents have nothing to do with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Based on pet-friendly hotel agreements, they make the signer promise not to leave the animal alone in the room, to keep the dog from barking, to pick up and dispose of waste, etc., and obey half a dozen other rules. And to agree to reimburse the hotel for any damage the dog might cause.

The hour was late and I did not think I could find space at any other hotel. A big music festival was going on in the French Quarter, and the city was hopping. So I reluctantly signed.

The next morning I sent an email to the hotel’s general manager. It said in part:

“I believe this document is gratuitous and discriminatory, and would like to suggest that the [hotel] refrain from using it going forward.

“A service animal trained to assist a person with a disability is legally an item of medical equipment—not a pet. You would, for instance, not ask someone with a breathing disability to sign an agreement to reimburse the hotel for any damage his CPAP equipment causes.  Such liability is already covered in the normal hotel/guest tariff laws. The same principle applies to service animals.

“I believe that the ‘service dog agreement’ instructions to pick up after my dog, etc., carries an implicit suggestion that I am not a responsible person and need to be reminded of obligations that every service dog handler knows by heart. Such a suggestion is, in my view, insulting and sets me apart from other hotel guests as a person with a disability.

“I understand that the hotel needs to distinguish between genuine service animals and fraudulent ones. But such a document puts the onus on the wrong party, and causes us distress.

“Thank you for reading this and understanding the issue.”

The manager responded quickly. He wrote:

“I have looked into the nuances of the 'Service Animal Agreement' that you signed upon registration. I can truly appreciate your concern and I cannot apologize enough that you were asked to sign this outmoded and unnecessary document.  To be fully forthcoming with you, this document has no purpose nor application as it relates to Service Animals and the [hotel].  Much to your insightful suggestion that the ‘[hotel] refrain from using it going forward,’ the template has been deleted from our database and all copies of this document have been destroyed.” 

Sometimes the squeaky-wheel approach does work.