Pop quiz, xoJane readers!
You're a sales associate at Ann Taylor, and a blind customer walks in with her service dog. Do you:
- Act shocked and surprised that a blind woman would need to buy clothes.
- Provide prompt and efficient service just like you would to any other customer.
- Follow the customer around patronisingly, making irritating cooing noises at her dog to distract him while he's working.
- Kick the customer out, informing her that dogs aren't allowed in your store.
Don't think too hard on this one, kids, because it's not rocket science. The correct answer would be "two," and the answer at a Salt Lake City Ann Taylor on Friday was "four."
Becky Andrews, a loyal Ann Taylor customer with a closet full of their clothing, was pretty excited about going shopping on Friday afternoon. She had her husband drop her off and headed into the store with her guide dog, Cricket, preparing to give her plastic a bit of a workout. She has a condition called retinitis pigmentosa that severely limits her visual field, making it necessary to use a guide dog to get around independently.
She was not greeted by a gracious store clerk ready to serve her, but by a clerk who told her to leave because she had a dog with her. She explained that Cricket was a service animal who acts as her eyes, and the clerk still insisted that she leave. Finally, she told Cricket to lead her out.
Becky's had a rough few weeks, and was understandably upset by her experience at Ann Taylor. Not least because Utah, like many states, has statutes on the books dating to the 1960s reinforcing the right to access public accommodations with a guide dog. Furthermore, the Americans With Disabilities Act, mandating access for guide dogs, passed in 1990. 22 years later, these kinds of denial of service shouldn't be occurring, because stores should be providing proper training to their staff in how to deal with service animals and their handlers.
Namely, when you encounter a service animal, all you're allowed to ask is if it's a service animal, and what kinds of tasks it is trained to perform. The animal does not need to wear identifying harnesses or tags, although many do, and the handler is not required to provide documentation, paperwork or identification.
Disappointingly, there were apparently other people in the store who didn't do anything to intervene, which should stand as a lesson to people who are wondering about how to stand in solidarity with disabled people. If you see a clearcut case of discrimination like a denial of service to a customer with a service animal, say something. When other customers start speaking up, stores tend to pay attention.
One employee followed Becky out of the store to tell her she really likes dogs. That's great. Lots of people really like dogs. What this employee seemed to miss was that Cricket was a guide dog performing specific tasks for her handler, not some random pet. After hearing Becky repeatedly state that Cricket is a service animal, the best that employee could muster up was an apology that the store didn't allow Cricket in? Seriously?
Backpedaling in the wake of considerable negative media attention, Ann Taylor is claiming that Cricket was not in harness, a violation of store and mall policy. Let's break this down, because this is an important claim.
1. You don't get to require that service animals be in harness. (Although if a service animal is clearly disruptive and out of control, you can ask the handler to remove it.)
2. Cricket is a guide dog, as in, a dog who acts as someone's eyes. How the heck is he supposed to lead Becky around if he's not in harness? It's safe to assume that when she's out on her own with Cricket, he is in harness all the time, because otherwise she can't see.
So no, Ann Taylor, I'm afraid that particular excuse doesn't fly. You messed up big time, and you should own it, not just by calling to apologise to Becky and her family (which you did, kudos), but by committing to a company-wide training program to ensure that these kinds of situations don't occur again. There's no excuse to deny service to a customer who uses a service animal, not in 2012.
Becky, who is clearly a far better person than I am, cheerfully volunteered to educate Ann Taylor associates and increase awareness about how to work with and around service dogs. I'd take her up on that offer if I were you, Ann Taylor, because it's a pretty sweet deal from a woman who has every right to file a lawsuit against you instead of offering to help you out.
Becky's blog, Cruisin' with Cricket, has more information on the situation, as well as what it's like to be a part of a service dog team, if you're interested.