Luke Putney and guide dog, Jacob, on the Belmont University campus.
“It’s like being asked to leave my eyeballs [or my 3-year-old] outside,” says Luke Putney, an incoming freshman at Belmont University, on being told he can enter an establishment only if he leaves his guide dog tied to a tree outside.
On July 1, Tennessee passed a law that granted guide dog users access to essentially any public establishment — without having to provide documentation — matching the standard in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In the 1950s, there were almost no laws regarding access for blind people, says Michael Hingson, the vice president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU). As awareness about guide dogs increased, states began to pass laws regarding their restrictions.
By the time the ADA passed in 1990, almost every state had its own laws — and it has taken more than 20 years for those laws to catch up to federal standards.
Though the updated law isn’t a drastic change, Putney and Hingson agree it is a positive step.
“State laws can’t violate federal laws, so it is relevant that Tennessee is making their law in accordance with the federal law,” Hingson says. “The very fact that states have laws, some of which are more stringent and give more teeth and power to the rights than federal laws, [is] important.”
“It’s ridiculous that I have to show some special card to get into any place in Tennessee, [even though I don't really] have to show [anything] because federal law says I don’t,” Hingson says.
Putney has been working with NAGDU’s new chapter in Nashville, sending out news releases to businesses to promote awareness “about guide dogs in general” and educate business owners about the updated law.
Putney was recently asked to present documentation for his guide dog, Jacob, while checking out at Whole Foods.
“It’s kind of humiliating,” Putney says.
Julie McGinnity, a guide dog user and recent grad from Webster University, says public awareness is the biggest problem when it comes to access with guide dogs — but once she informs people of the law, they understand.
McGinnity was asked to present a card for her dog, Brie, while visiting the Statue of Liberty a few years ago.
Putney and McGinnity both say, however, they have had little trouble gaining access for their dogs on college campuses.
“Belmont’s been really awesome with accessibility,” says Putney, because there aren’t many roads to cross.
McGinnity, who was a vocal performance major, says Brie even performed with her on several occasions.
In addition to being guide-dog-friendly, many colleges — such as the University of Georgia and Texas A&M — have programs where students raise puppies that will become trained guide or service dogs.
Deana Izzo, a field representative for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, says programs such as those help to familiarize the community with guide dogs. Izzo says she spends significant time educating students about these dogs, so they will grow up aware and eventually teach their kids.
The new Tennessee law still requires dog trainers and raisers to present identification when entering a public establishment. Puppy raisers and trainers take the dogs into a wide variety of places to expose them to different social environments and stressors.
Izzo says her puppy raisers have trouble getting access “all the time. However, over the last 20 years, that aspect of the job has decreased, due to education.”
Izzo recommends to her puppy raisers and graduates to call ahead when they visit an establishment for the first time, not to get permission, but as a courtesy. This can be especially helpful when dealing with environments that may be unfriendly to dogs — such as foreign restaurants or cab companies — mainly due to custom or religion.
Cab drivers may think “their customs trump my rights,” but that’s not the case, Hingson says.
Hingson says he would like to see state laws go further, making access denial for people with guide dogs a criminal offense, as some states already have.
“That would be a step in the right direction,” McGinnity says.
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