Saturday, September 01, 2007

Taxis vs. service dogs for the visually impaired

Broadcaster Bill Jurek remembers the night he was working late at a radio station and needed a ride home.

He and a friend stood outside on Michigan Avenue to hail a cab. But when the driver pulled up and learned about a third passenger, a guide dog, he refused.

“I was leaning in the car to talk to him and he started driving away,” Jurek recalled.

It was the first time Jurek had been denied a ride since getting his dog, even though service is guaranteed by federal and state laws.

“Normally, I give the benefit of the doubt to people,” the 57-year-old Long Grove resident said. “But what I did was I filed a … consumer services report” with the city.

Nothing came of it, he said. At least not right away.

Six months later, Jurek got involved in an undercover program produced by NBC through his job as a newsman and announcer for the network.

Acting as decoys, Jurek and another woman who worked with the Guild for the Blind stood outside with their guide dogs in tow to hail cabs. If a driver refused them a ride or passed them, one of the producers of the project would hail the same cab farther down the street.

“[The producer] noticed that they had not taken the person with the guide dog,” he said. “These cab drivers kept saying ‘No, no, it’s my car, I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to.’”

The NBC report did catch the interest of consumer services, Jurek said. “Action was taken on my behalf and my case actually came up for a hearing.” He won.

That was about 10 years ago, not long after Jurek lost his sight in 1995 from a retina problem complicated by glaucoma.

The Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, a nonprofit social service agency, estimates that there are about 15,000 visually impaired or blind people in the city of Chicago. Of those, the agency estimates that several hundred use guide dogs.

Since that time, Jurek said, the city has made strides to correct the problem. “I’ve seen an improvement where drivers are more inclined to take a guide dog.”

“To the best of my knowledge, obviously it’s still a concern, but there are training programs in place and cab drivers know the consequence for refusing service,” said Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for Chicago’s Department of Consumer Services.

But according to Jurek, the suburbs are still cause for concern. That’s because each municipality controls its own taxi cab licensing. There is no single licensing body like the city’s Department of Consumer Services Public Vehicle Division.

Retired Cook County Judge Nicholas Pomaro, now director of the Lighthouse’s Kane Legal Clinic, noted a recent allegation pending in federal district court that claims a suburban cab company denied a couple access to transportation.

“What we’re looking for, not for monetary gain, we’re just looking to see that people have the right to live like anyone else,” Pomaro said.

Cab improvements in the city The training for city drivers that McCaffrey referred to is a two-week class at the Public Chauffeur Training Institute at Harold Washington College in the Loop. The 20-year-old class is required of potential drivers before they take their licensing exam.

Jurek, formerly a full-time presenter for the class who also works for the Lighthouse's CRIS Radio, said more emphasis was placed on the service dog aspect after the NBC sting.

During the first week of training, a member of the Guild for the Blind visits to lecture on accommodating blind or visually impaired patrons as well as their guide dogs, according to Anna Blum, dean of public agency and special programs at Harold Washington College.

Students also learn about the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Illinois White Cane Law. These laws give those with visual or hearing impairments, or other physical disabilities, who are accompanied by a service dog, the right to use public transportation and enter establishments just as anyone else would.

Under Chicago’s municipal code, a cab driver can be fined $500 and have his license suspended for 29 days if he denies a ride to a person accompanied by a service dog. If, after a notice and hearing, the driver repeats the offense, his license is revoked. This, according to the Illinois Attorney General’s Web site, is a violation of the Guide Dog Access Act and a misdemeanor.
The Web site also notes that violation of the White Cane Law—though a misdemeanor—can land a person in jail for up to a year with a $1,000 fine.

McCaffrey said he doesn’t know the exact number of drivers prosecuted for ride refusal, or specifically, refusal due to service dogs in the city. “I would say our success rate in prosecuting is good.” If the complaint is valid, and the person is willing to testify, he said, “we prosecute as many of them as we can.”

Why no dogs?Many students are hearing about these laws for the first time, according to Kathy Austin, coordinator for the adult rehabilitation department at the Guild for the Blind and a full-time class presenter.

“Sometimes there’ll be 20 students in the classroom from 19 different countries,” Austin said. “They’re not familiar with our laws.”

Some drivers reason that religious beliefs interfere with allowing a dog in the car.“I had one guy on a Sunday morning tell me ‘No, you can’t bring the dog in my cab because I pray in the backseat,’” Jurek said.

Some followers of Islam may consider dogs to be an outdoor animal that is impure.

“It’s considered unclean only in the sense that when you’re going to pray or something, it mustn’t lick you,” said Zafar Malik, who is of the Muslim faith and works as the associate dean for development and university relations at East-West University in Chicago.

If the dog were to lick him or his clothes, Malik said he would wash that part before prayer.
“Provided you are visually impaired or you need the dog for protection or for any other reason,” he said, “then it’s perfectly fine” for it to be in the cab.

Pomaro said a fear of the unknown might also cause a driver to deny a ride.“If [drivers are] not related to or have particular dealings with a person who is blind or visually impaired, there’s a lack of understanding and they’re fearful,” he said. “Some people are just fearful of dogs.”

Cab drivers who can’t accommodate a service animal should consider a career change said Roxanne Calibraro, director for alternative dispute resolution services for the Better Business Bureau of Chicago.

“If that is the problem for them, perhaps they are in the wrong industry because they are serving the public,” she said. She also uses a guide dog to navigate the streets.

No two suburbs are exactly alike According to Calibraro, the Better Business Bureau of Chicago hasn’t handled complaints regarding the issue because it’s not within the bureau's jurisdiction. “We would send [the complaints] to the city,” she said.

Suburbs handle cab regulations and driver instruction differently. Jurek said he would like to see a countywide training program established.

In the city of Evanston, for example, an incident regarding a guide dog and a taxi several years ago prompted additional instruction. “Since then, what we did was carve out a section of training for drivers to explain the law as it stands [and] where these dogs are allowed,” said Steve O’Sullivan, the city’s license and measures inspector.

Some cab companies that operate in the suburbs institute their own training programs. The Village of Oak Park doesn’t offer one, but does license two companies—Blue Cab and Red Cab—according to Sandra Sokol, the village clerk.

Blue Cab trains its own drivers, Sokol said. She said she doesn’t know whether Red Cab, a newer company, has instituted any sort of instruction.

Sokol said Oak Park hasn’t heard such complaints. If they were to receive one, she added, “certainly we would try to resolve whatever happened first.”

But cab companies typically handle complaints well, Jurek said. “The companies in the suburbs are aware,” he noted. “If you bring a complaint to them, they usually advise drivers.”

When it comes to complaints McCaffrey doesn’t know the exact date, but said it’s been a long-standing requirement to install Braille placards in the back of city cabs that give instructions for filing complaints. It is unknown whether this is the case for cab companies operating in the suburbs.

Austin said Braille instructions in cabs don’t always help. “Not all blind or visually impaired people know Braille, especially people who have lost their sight later in life,” she said. “So the Braille’s going to be fairly useless.”

According to Pomaro, not everyone knows the best way to file a complaint, either.

“They’re certainly welcome to come [to the Chicago Lighthouse] and I’ll do everything I can to remedy the situation,” he said. “They can contact the city of Chicago at 311 and that’s very good, too.”

Cabs as a necessityFor a blind or visually impaired person, a cab is sometimes an essential or a preferred form of transportation.

“It makes them feel safer to take the cab so, to be treated unfairly by the cab driver, that kind of defeats the purpose of the safety factor of the taxi,” Jurek said.

Taxis are part of his everyday routine, and he uses a company in the suburbs that he has trusted for years.

“I live far enough away that I couldn’t walk to the train station,” he added. “So I have to take the cab to get to the train station in order to get into the city.”

Now, the Illinois General Assembly’s failure to reach consensus on the budget has jeopardized many CTA, Pace and Metra routes.

Without more funding, the CTA’s route 127 Madison/Roosevelt circulator that Jurek takes to get to the Lighthouse faces possible elimination. Fortunately, for him, the Pink Line is within walking distance.

Austin said the cuts might mean an even bigger demand for cabs.

“It might force [the blind and visually impaired] to take that mode of transportation,” she said. “That could be a significant expense because cabs certainly are more expensive than busses and trains.”

But the problem is larger than dogs and cabs. Discrimination isn’t limited to the blind or visually impaired and others requiring service dogs to get around.

As with any issue, Pomaro noted that educating the public is necessary to stop the problem before it starts.

“That takes time and effort,” he said. “It isn’t done overnight.”


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