Jacqi and I and a few of our family and friends traveled down to Austin last weekend to attend the Keep Austin Weird 5k run; I wasn’t going to run myself, but a big part of the event is the music and festivities that surround it. We walked down 6th street and decided to go into Treasure Island, just a little club among many others, and everything went fine until I got to the door and they wouldn’t let me in because of my guide dog Echo. The guy at the door checking ID’s said they didn’t allow dogs. I told him that it wasn’t a problem because Echo was a guide dog and she was allowed anywhere that served the public. He wasn’t having any of it, so I asked to speak with the manager. Another employee that had come over to the door as well went to find the manager, Patrick, who didn’t come to the door, but sent word back that we could not come in. I told the bouncer that not letting us in wasn’t an option; that if need be I would have the police explain the law to them, but I’d rather it didn’t come to that. I wasn’t angry; this wasn’t the first time that I had been denied access or had to explain access laws, but it is always a disappointment. He couldn’t seem to care less, so we went on the search for a policeman.
Who would have thought we would still be having civil rights issues here in 2010? I almost felt like I had walked through a time warp and ended up in the 60’s; that makes more sense than to think that almost 50 years after the civil rights laws were passed we are still having issues.
Please do not think for a moment though that I am comparing any rights issues that I may have with what the people in the 60’s faced. The people at that time faced an environment that was filled with anger and violence; the most common obstacles these days appear to be ignorance and apathy. I’ve run across a few religious extremists who felt I was cursed by God, hence the disability, but even these people are generally more passive aggressive than anything else.
We found a police officer, but the evening was about to get stranger still.
The oddest moment of the night occurred while I stood and listened to an African American policeman try and explain why it was ok for me to be discriminated against; he seemed to get confused as to what he was trying to explain – tried to come at it from several different angles, and finally gave up and sought another officer for help. The second officer had a different interpretation of the law than the first, so they brought in a third and then a fourth officer. All of them had different ideas about what the law was. I told them that I actually had a copy of the law in my pocket. The guide dog school gives all of their students a laminated card with a copy of the law – while some legal jargon is so indecipherable that it will make your head spin this law isn’t one of those – It is only one sentence long and says:
“Persons who are blind, as well as other disabled citizens, are guaranteed the legal right to be accompanied by a specially trained dog guide or support dog in all public places.” Human Resouces Code – Title 8, Chapter 121 – Sections 121.001-121.010
The officers did not want to look at the card; they just kept saying over and over, “we aren’t that familiar with the law.” Which if you think about it; it is sort of a scary thing to hear cops keep repeating to you like a mantra. Samantha, my sister in law, wasn’t giving in an inch.
I would like to be very clear that the officers involved were extremely polite, as were we, they just appeared ignorant of what it was they were supposed to do. I was very calm because the last thing that you need when talking to someone about an access violation is to seem upset or agitated, even if that’s the way you feel, the calmer you are then the more rational your stance seems, and the more likely your rights will be upheld.
The problem seems to be that some people even in this day and age, even trained professionals, don’t understand that it is discrimination to not allow a person with a disability access into a place of public business.
One of the officers, once they saw we weren’t going away (again thanks Sam!) asked what I would like them to do. When we had first approached the officers I really expected to just tell them the situation and they would immediately walk over and have a friendly talk with the club owners, and that would be it. It didn’t occur to me that they wouldn’t know the most basic of the civil rights laws, and that they would be resistant to the minimal effort of even reading it when it was handed to them. When they asked what I wanted them to do it surprised me a little further because it underscored how they really had no idea of what they were supposed to do.
I told him that I thought it would be a good idea for an officer to go over and very politely explain the law to the management of the establishment, and two of the officers went off to do so. To the remaining officers I tried to explain why this was especially important because not only was this the main street for tourism in the state capitol, but also only blocks away lies the Criss Cole School for the Visually Impaired where the blind from all over the state come for training, and what’s more the states only Guide Dog School (in San Antonio) is extremely close as well – this street of all others in the state ought to know the basic civil rights laws.
The hero of this story is Samantha Serie; we were there in Austin to have fun and relax, and it would have been extremely easy to just sit back and do nothing while all of this was going on. If you could think that Sam would ever do this though then you haven’t met her. She is an extremely gracious and outgoing person, and a blast to hang out with; along with this she is also a very strong person who has no hesitation in addressing a problem when she finds one. I think a big reason the police finally caved in and helped out was because they knew that even if they could get rid of me there was no way they were going to get her to back down.
How important is this – to being stopped from having a drink with family and friends? Can people live without beer? That’s debatable.
Can people live without freedom? Of course they can – people in places all over the world do so every day, but not here. Not in America; we have decided in this country that freedom is important. Most of you who know me personally or are kind enough to read my blog know that I’m a pretty easy going person. What gets under my skin about denying access to people with disabilities isn’t that I’m extremely worried about my own rights. I am an adult; and I can stand up for myself even when that means that I am standing in the street with a group of police around me and a crowd of gawkers around them wondering what’s going on, and what I must have done wrong for the police to be there. That doesn’t bother me a bit; the way I see it the more people that are there then the greater chance for more people to learn about the issue.
There are a lot of different people that have a disability (20% of the population at last count) and a lot of different types of disabilities, and not every person who is denied access, either right in your face by a bouncer like I was or because of some other flaw in the system like improper building design, is going to be able to take a stand at that moment. What really irritates me is when I think of this happening to a child. Okay, you may be asking yourself – ‘Hey John why would a kid want to get into a bar? And if they did shouldn’t someone stop them anyway?’ Ha, ha very funny – you’re a regular comedian. But, the same officers who didn’t know the laws, and were initially supporting my being denied access because of me having a guide dog will be dealing with everyone and not just my tie-dyed hair bar crawling self. Oh yeah, did I mention that I had purple and pink hair during all of this? It could have been worse – I had planned on wearing a grass skirt too, but changed my mind and dressed down before going out because it was around 100 degrees and that is just too hot to wear a bunch of plastic leis around your neck, and what’s a grass skirt without leis? At the Keep Austin Weird 5K Run the crazier you dress the more normal you are; or something like that.
I am a fortunate person because whenever I was denied access to the club in front of my family and friends it could have been a humiliating experience, and when the police didn’t initially feel I had any rights to have access it could have been that much more embarrassing. Fortunately that wasn’t the case because of the quality of my friends and family, and like I say, I’m an adult – I can deal with this stuff. I hate to think of what it must be like for a kid facing this sort of ignorance, or for someone who is newly disabled, and just doing the best they can to deal with everything for the time being.
So what happened? Am I angry at the police or at Treasure Island? Truthfully no, I wasn’t angry at them then, and I’m not now. I feel disappointed, and I feel like there is a lot of work to be done. Patrick, the clubs manager, was brought over by the police and apologized. He offered to buy us all a drink and I took him up on it. Treasure Island wasn’t really on the top of my list of places to hang out in by this point, but I did want the bouncers, the waitstaff, the bartenders, and the clientele to all see us in the club. To drive home the point of what equal access means. Also, it was the friendly thing to do – while the police could force them to let us in this time I don’t think that would help the next time a person with a disability darkened their door. I hope that some of the minds at Treasure Island have changed; nothing would make me happier than to hear that other people with diabilities went there and were able to have a good time.
Thanks for listening to this rant; I know I went on longer than usual – I really appreciate your time, and if you know of anyone that has experienced a similar experience or has an interest in disability issues I encourage you to send them this blog.