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October 26, 2002

Group supports guide dog rights

From: Gainesville Times, GA
Oct, 26, 2002

Service animals may get more legal protection

The Times
Judy Presley's dog is her window to the world. Without her German shepherd Frisky at her side, going to public places is like fumbling in the dark. Presley is legally blind. Almost seven years ago, the Helen resident decided to apply to the Seeing Eye in Morristown, N.J., to receive a guide dog.

"It's made such a difference in my life," she said. "You feel so much more confident and secure (with a dog)."

But she sometimes encounters problems because of public misconceptions about working animals. So Presley is helping to form a new group, the Georgia Guide Dog Users Association.

The organization, which has scheduled its first meeting for Nov. 10 in Helen, is affiliated with a national group called Guide Dog Users, Inc. One of its goals is to advocate for laws protecting the rights of people who use service dogs.

An estimated 10,000 blind people in the United States use guide dogs. It's not known how many of those live in Georgia. Hundreds more use dogs that are trained to help deaf or physically disabled people.

The Georgia Guide Dogs Users Association supports a bill introduced by state Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross, that would impose fines of up to $500 for interfering with a working guide dog.

"One reason I wanted to start this group is that a couple of years ago in Helen, a chow jumped out of a construction worker's pickup and attacked my Seeing Eye dog," Presley said. "I felt helpless and traumatized, but the police had no law to enforce."

Even where laws exist, enforcement is haphazard. On June 21, Reba Shaw of Marietta arrived in Helen for a weekend stay, accompanied by her guide dog. She walked into a franchise of a national hotel chain and presented her Seeing Eye license, which features a photo of Shaw and Bonnet, her yellow Labrador retriever.

"The clerk said, 'No pets allowed,'" she said. "I calmly tried to explain the situation, but it did no good. Finally my significant other called the Helen police, who got the hotel's owner on the phone."

According to the police report, the owner stated, "If it's a dog, it's a pet." He refused accommodation to Shaw, who already had reserved a handicapped-access room at the hotel.

"The police did not charge him because they were unaware that there is a state law," said Shaw.

Georgia's statute imposes a fine of up to $2,000 or 30 days in jail or both for denying rights to a blind, deaf or disabled person who uses a trained service dog.

Denying public accommodations to service dogs also violates Title III of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. A first violation can result in a civil penalty of up to $50,000; subsequent violations can cost as much as $100,000.

In late August, Shaw filed a federal lawsuit against the franchise owner, the hotel chain, and the chain's parent company. The case will be tried in Gainesville, though a court date has not yet been set.

Shaw, who works as a quality assurance supervisor at SunTrust Bank in Marietta, said her negative experience in Helen was not typical. "I've had a guide dog since February 1996, and until now I was never refused access after I explained my situation."

Group members say there needs to be much more education about the role of service dogs, and not just among business owners.

"There is still a lot of ignorance among the general public," Shaw said. "They always want to pet the dog."

Presley's German shepherd wears a sign on her harness that says "IGNORE: WORKING DOG." That helps, she said.

"But it's hard for children to understand why they can't pet her. I tell them she's on duty, just like a policeman is on duty."

Presley sometimes gives presentations for schools and youth groups, showing kids what Frisky does and why it's important to leave her alone while she's working.

But even adults don't always get it, she said. They often try to approach Frisky while Presley is eating in a restaurant or riding on public transportation.

"They'll say, 'What do you mean, she's working? She's not doing anything but lying there.'"


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