Randall Cook is suing 21 Century Buffet for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act
By Christine Byers‚
Rockford Register Star
Randall Cook is blind and depends on his yellow Labrador named Jensen to lead the way. Until one day last month, Jensen has been able to go wherever Cook goes.
That’s the way it’s supposed to work with Seeing Eye dogs, according to the law.
The law didn’t protect Cook and Jensen when they were refused service at a local restaurant Feb. 16.
Experts in disability law say experiences like Cook’s happen often but are rarely publicized or reported. The director of a Rockford advocacy group for the disabled has never heard of a similar complaint here but acknowledges that many don’t complain. Those who do file complaints often settle through mediation and never make it to court.
And, compared with the number of businesses in the country, the number of complaints that evolve into lawsuits is small.
“It’s a nationwide epidemic,” said Mary Marques-Caramico, an expert in animal access law based in Portland, Ore. “The disabled are often made to feel as if they stand out anyway. Some because of their outward appearance, their wheelchairs, a physical deformity or lack of limbs, and all they want to do is blend in.
“So instead of facing the confrontation, they’d rather walk away from it, so it’s really impossible to put numbers on it because people don’t want to fight it.”
Jennifer Campbell, a friend of Cook, has filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office against the restaurant 21 Century Buffet.
Once the office receives the letter, it will try to mediate the case to avoid taking the restaurant to court.
Restaurant manager Ni Wong said she didn’t do anything illegal because she didn’t refuse to serve Cook.
In fact, Wong said, she offered to have a waitress help Cook if he took the dog outside.
Cook, 33, has been legally blind since age 18.
Last month, Cook and Campbell tried to eat at the buffet on Alpine Road.
Wong said she refused to allow Jensen inside because the dog didn’t smell good, could frighten children and would not be good for customers.
She said she had no idea that it’s illegal to bar a Seeing Eye dog from her restaurant.
“A lot of restaurants don’t include animals,” Wong said.
“I’ll let him have whatever he wants if he leaves the dog in the car. I’ll have people help him bring food to the table or whatever.”
That’s not what Cook wants.
Cook said having a waitress help him would be like getting “special treatment” or a “handout.”
“It’s like second-class citizenship,” Cook said.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act and state law, refusing to allow a service dog such as Jensen into a restaurant is illegal.
Melissa Murz, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, said she didn’t have a count on the number of complaints about Seeing Eye dog discrimination but said the office handles “a lot.”
Most, Murz said, are settled through mediation before they get to court.
The United States Department of Justice enforces the disabilities act nationally.
About 650 lawsuits have been filed nationwide in the past five years.
That’s tiny compared with the 6 million businesses, 666,000 public and private employers, and 80,000 units of state and local government that must comply, according to the department’s Web site.
Rockford Ald. John Beck, who is disabled and has used a service dog since 1991, said, “I can count on one hand how many times I’ve been questioned about bringing my dog into a public place.
“I’d say Rockford’s been really open to accept people with service dogs.”
Reports of service dog discrimination have not come across Peter Shultz’s desk at Regional Access and Mobilization Project in Rockford during the three years he’s worked there.
Still, “the misunderstanding of the ADA act is an occurrence that happens far too often,” said Shultz, who has used a wheelchair since 1984.
Marques-Caramico, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair and a service dog, has earned advanced degrees in sociology/criminology, criminal investigation and public administration.
As an ADA partner and through her company, Assistance Animal Access Consulting Service, Marques-Caramico provides education about the disabilities act to businesses and organizations.
She has worked in civil rights law since 1995 and reviews at least one new case of service dog discrimination every day. She said many offenses are not reported.
If Campbell had not filed the complaint, Cook said he might have “brushed it aside.”
“I’m not the type of person to go around and cause trouble for people,” Cook said.
“Everybody is so sue-happy these days. I would just like to see an attorney talk to them and let them know the consequences can be serious.
“The positive thing is, you can learn something from this.”
Copyright © 2001 Rockford Register Star