Before mental illness, I had no problem speaking up for myself or for a loved one if I felt we were being mistreated. For the past couple years, I had lost that confidence. Last Friday, I surprised myself when I felt some of that fire coming back.
My service dog Joey and I had just left therapy and were meeting my cousin Ellen for lunch at a fast food restaurant that we go to often. Fast food restaurants tend to be a triggering place for me. Joey had been there before, more than 5 times, and he knew exactly what to do; when we picked out our table, he quietly tucked under the table at my feet.
As I was taking out my wallet, the manager of the restaurant approached us. I wasn't alarmed or suspicious because people come up to compliment Joey whenever we are out. To my surprise, he asked if he could see Joey's service dog certification. I was taken off guard but explained that service dogs don't have a certification. Service dogs are trained to do tasks catered to their handlers, so there isn't a certain test they have to pass because they all have unique jobs. There are actually many website that charge a fee to "register" your dog as a service dog, but the paper isn't an actual legal document.
The manager was persistent and said everyone with a service dog shows him a registration card. I repeated myself that service dogs don't require paperwork. He disagreed and told me that at his training, he learned the handlers MUST show a certification. I tried to stay calm as two couples eating their lunches looked at us. Instead of just correcting him again, I told him that under The Americans with Disabilities Act, he could only legally ask me 2 questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
He didn't bother to actually ask me these questions. He could see that my cousin and I were extremely frustrated, and he said, "I'll let it slide this time." I was shocked. Let what slide? I wasn't doing anything wrong; HE was wrong. At that point, Ellen calmly asked if she could speak with him outside. I honestly don't know what she told that manager, but he came back in avoiding contact with me and the other customers. Thank you for the back-up Ellen! He did later apologize and said he was only doing what he was taught.
I stayed calm in the restaurant and enjoyed my salad with my cousin. As soon as I got in the car, I called my mom, and several friends, to explain what happened. My mom later called the restaurant's corporate office to report the situation and make sure they knew the law, so it wouldn't happen to anyone else. The office quickly responded and apologized, and said the manager wasn't trained through them. They are aware of the law and promised to make sure every manager knows exactly what to do when a service dog comes into the restaurant. I've chosen not to disclose which restaurant it was because of their thoughtful response.
Rather than become angry either in the restaurant or on social media, I want to make this an opportunity for education. People, especially those in leadership positions, need to know the laws about service dogs. I was fortunate that I was in a good mental state that day and had someone there to support me. Had it happened several months ago, or even now on a difficult day, I wouldn't have known what to do, and it could've triggered a horrible and long-lasting feeling for me. I think of those who are in that position and wouldn't be able to stand up for themselves. Having an "invisible illness" and a service dog can draw a lot of stares, questions, and skeptics. We need to make the world a more understanding and compassionate place.
-Allie (and Joey)