Rodney Jackson has been thrown out of businesses, threatened and denied hospital care. His crime: having a service dog.
Service animals, usually dogs, assist disabled people in case of emergencies and with everyday tasks. They guide the blind, open doors for people in wheelchairs, sense the onset of heart attacks or seizures and provide companionship.
But ironically a resource meant to help people live more independently sometimes causes them to be refused service by businesses.
Jackson, 43, heeded a doctor's advice to use a service dog after a heart attack and stroke. He bought the dog two years ago. Since then, he says, he has experienced 65 instances of discrimination.
"I was under the impression that since I was under protection of state and federal laws, I had nothing to worry about," Jackson says. "But these laws mean absolutely nothing."
The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, prohibits businesses from denying people who use service animals access or service generally available to the public. Under Ohio law, an employee who refuses to help a disabled customer can be arrested on the spot. But Jackson's experiences indicate inconsistencies in the way the law is interpreted and enforced.
Kicking the underdog
Jackson describes a common scenario.
"I go to a place of business," he says. "They call the police to have me thrown out. Every time the police arrive they don't know the law. I carry a copy of the law and they don't read it. When they start to escort you out, it's beyond humiliating."
At a Wal-Mart store in Greater Cincinnati, Jackson says, a greeter told him, "Don't be surprised if someone doesn't shoot you in the back with a shotgun." At a Wal-Mart store in Douglas, Ga., he also had difficulty.
"When Wal-Mart threw me out, the police escorted me right past a sign that said 'Service Dogs Welcome,' " he says.
Sharon Weber, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, is apologetic.
"These are unfortunate incidents we are very sorry about," she says. "I think we have to do an even better job educating our associates, especially our greeters, on the laws of service animals."
Wal-Mart recently sent Jackson a coupon worth $75 for his trouble.
Employees at a Sears store in Springdale called police on Jackson. He offered a copy of the law, but they withdrew only after the intervention of his sister, who worked there.
The Ohio Civil Rights Commission dismissed Jackson's complaint, according to Sears spokeswoman Peggy Palter.
"In fact, Sears has been used as an example of a company that is doing an excellent job in making accommodations for people with disabilities," Palter says. "Sears has a formal policy that addresses assisting customers with disabilities and also provides training for our employees on assisting them. As far as service animals are concerned, it clearly states that service animals must be allowed to accompany their owners throughout the store."
Drema Brown, spokeswoman for the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, says the case was closed.
"The file indicates that we would have gone through our normal investigation process, that Sears offered to make a full remedy and that Jackson refused the offer," she says. "I can't say specifically what Sears offered or why he refused it."
Jackson laughs at the explanation.
"Their full remedy was a coupon for a free pair of shoes," he says. "They humiliated me for a full 45 minutes and that was what they offered me. Because I refused the offer, the OCRC closed the case." Jackson says his most disappointing experience was being thrown out of Middletown Regional Hospital during an attack of angina. When he arrived with his dog, a nurse refused to allow him into the emergency room and had five police officers escort him out.
"The nurse's defense was basically, based on her opinion, I didn't appear to be disabled enough to have a dog," Jackson says. "So why didn't they take my pulse and blood pressure on the bench in the lobby? Why didn't she check with a doctor?"
Larry James, vice president for Middletown Regional Hospital declines to discuss the incident, but says the hospital's policy is to allow service dogs."
Dogged by misunderstanding
Ray Byers of Pilot Dogs, Inc., an agency that trains guide dogs for the blind, says Jackson's experience is exceptional.
"It happens from time to time because people don't know what the dog is," Byers says. "Depending on the business, they can contact a lawyer, the police or the press. Nine times out of 10 they will say it is a misunderstanding."
But Derek Mortland, technical supervisor for Americans with Disabilities Act Ohio, an association that helps educate the public, says Jackson's experience is hardly rare.
"He has had a lot of bad luck with his dog, but his experience is not unusual," Mortland says. "It's an issue that comes up from time to time, usually with restaurants. I got a call from a hotel, and they ended up correcting themselves. In most cases that's the norm, it's self-correctional. But being accessible goes beyond accessible rest rooms. Allowing access goes beyond providing physical access, it means access to service dogs as well. Usually someone with a service animal shouldn't have to carry an ADA handbook. I think where Mr. Jackson's trouble comes in is that he doesn't have an obvious physical disability. People may not believe he is disabled and think he is bringing a pet in."
Jackson, who suffers angina, hypertension, seizures and walking instability, is retired from a career of public service. After an honorable discharge from the Army he was a police officer for Lincoln Heights, Morrow, Maineville and the Anderson Township Park District. He also served as a firefighter Blue Ash and in Independence, Ky.
"I've been a wonderful police officer and firefighter," he says. "Here I am now in a vulnerable state. When I served, I took an oath of protection. Who's protecting me? I would prefer to think that being a person that has spent my entire adult life as a public servant could gain the support and action of the various agencies that are supposed to be in place to protect me."
Jackson has mixed feelings about his future .
"I've been disabled since 1990 but I feel like I have a full time job writing letters," he says. "I have written a book called Service Dog Owners Speak Out. I want to start an association of service dog owners. Hopefully there is strength in numbers."
He is determined to stand his ground next time.
"I am not going anywhere anymore," he says. "I imagine not too many police officers are going to take me challenging them nicely. If they mace me or take out their night sticks, I am going to defend myself."
But he also contemplates ending the fight.
"I'm tired of fighting this," Jackson says. "I've been a heart patient since 1990. The stroke was a wake-up call. When people are yelling and cussing, my heart just drops. I relive the experience in my dreams. I'm a physical wreck. I'm thinking about giving up the dog and moving to a retirement home." ©