Lessons in the law

by Andrea Cordle, Columbus Messenger
News Story – 1st Place

Six years ago, Grove City resident and Vietnam Veteran John Hensley lost his vision. Macular degeneration brought on by diabetes was the cause. Now, all he can see is shadows.

“It was rough when I first went blind,” said Hensley. “It came on quick.”

In May of last year, Hensley got his first service dog, Cali, a 2-year-old English Labrador. Hensley and Cali spent many weeks together in training after she went through an extensive 18-month training program with Leader Dogs, a guide dog organization based out of Rochester Hills, Mich.

“She is a highly trained dog,” said Hensley. “She’s my eyes. She’s a lifesaver to me.”

Hensley takes Cali with him everywhere. Usually, they have no problem in public places. Until recently.

Hensley, his wife Winnie, and Cali went to a Columbus-area restaurant. According to Hensley, the restaurant employee was reluctant to let him in the establishment because of his service dog. He explained the law but was still met with resistance. They were eventually allowed inside, however, they were reportedly informed that the dog could stay, but she would not be allowed near the buffet.

“I was flabbergasted,” said Hensley. “I have never experienced anything like that before.”

Hensley felt his rights were violated. He wants others in the business community and those with disabilities to have an increased awareness of the laws.

“They are service animals and they are there to help the person,” he said. “We don’t ask to have a disability.”

Under Ohio law and the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law, people with disabilities may bring their service animal to all public accommodations such as restaurants, museums, hotels and retail stores.

Kevin Truitt, an attorney with Disability Rights Ohio, said Hensley’s complaint is not unique. He said his organization receives many similar calls about private businesses that do not want to allow service animals.

“Service animals work or perform a task for a person with disabilities,” said Truitt.

Service animals, usually a dog, are specially trained to help the blind, hearing impaired or mobility impaired. State law and federal law covers these animals.

According to Truitt, refusing to allow a service animal into a public establishment is a violation of rights.

“It’s pretty serious,” said Truitt. “If a business owner is found in violation of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), they can face a lawsuit.”

Truitt said the business owner could face an injunction and be liable to cover attorney fees and court costs.

Truitt advises anyone who has experienced something like Hensley’s case to contact Disability Rights Ohio to learn about their rights. He also suggests filing a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. This commission has the authority to investigate and pursue litigation for the state.

Hensley believes everyone should be familiar with state and federal laws pertaining to service animals.

“Ignorance of the law is no defense,” said Hensley. “Be respectful of a person with disabilities.”

Hensley said Cali has been inside many dining establishments and she has never been a problem. She just lays on the floor under the table.

For more information on Disability Rights Ohio, visit www.disabilityrightsohio.org.

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