ADVOCATES RALLY FOR ACCESS FOR THOSE WITH DISABILITIES
Karl Etters, Tallahassee Democrat 10:56 a.m. EDT October 11, 2014
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About a dozen blind citizens rallied in front of the Museum of Florida History calling the contracted guards there “bullies” after a woman reported she and her guide dog were mistreated last week when they tried to visit the museum.
The woman, Tiffany Baylor, was not at Friday’s rally, but National Association of Guide Dog Users President Marion Gwizdala and his 6-year-old German shepherd Sergeant were, calling on state officials to allow them to offer more training to state or contracted security and scolding the treatment of a person with disabilities.
“For a blind person to go into a public building and be harassed by security officers is unconscionable,” Gwizdala said. “We are here to demand these security officers be reprimanded and if the state is not going to enforce the laws that three blocks away from here they passed then we’ve got a serious problem.”
Baylor said museum guards asked her to provide documentation of her disability and need for the guide dog. By law, specific questions about a person’s disabilities are prohibited, but asking what service a guide animal provides is allowed.
Officials with the Department of Management Services, the state’s building manager, released a brief video of Baylor at the museum capturing a small portion of the encounter. The agency has also called on the company to review protocols and provide training.
“The Department of Management Services strives to make all guests feel comfortable in its buildings with respect to accessibility and safety,” wrote DMS Spokesman in an email Thursday. “We will continue to make every effort to ensure all guests can access our managed buildings appropriately to conduct business or enjoy Florida’s history. The company is apologizing and we feel that is the right thing to do.”
The museum is housed in the bottom floor of the R.A. Gray Building that is home to the Department of State in Tallahassee.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner called Baylor to apologize for the incident in his building and offered a personal tour through the museum.
In a letter to Baylor, U.S. Security Associates’ Southern Division Vice President Deborah Kalert said the company regretted the actions the guards took and that officers must uphold the constitutional rights of all people.
“That their actions were perceived as being anything less than that is not what we or our officers expect,” Kalert wrote. “As a testament to our strive for perfection, we have implemented additional training for our officers and are committed to providing you and all visitors with the highest level of service.”
Merry Schoch, vice president of the Florida Association of Guide Dog Users, said her concern was that the incident would be dismissed or quickly forgotten by state officials.
“We have access denials all over the state of Florida and what is concerning to me is that they’re not taken seriously,” she said. “My hope is that the state of Florida takes this seriously and they will be role models for businesses, restaurants, hotels and cab drivers throughout the state of Florida. What’s very sad is we live in the 21st century and why did this happen in the first place?”
David Oliver, an Orlando lawyer for Morgan & Morgan who primarily handles Americans with Disability Act cases, said access restrictions are common, not just in public places and disabled individuals are not require to carry paperwork.
He said even if a person’s level of visual impairment may not be wholly apparent “that just stretches the bounds of outrageousness for anyone to question that,” Oliver said.
He added that there is potential for people to abuse the guide-animal claim, but “ADA guidelines are intended to avoid the public embarrassment of a disabled person for having to explain their disability,” Oliver said. “A guide dog, that’s a pretty simple answer and the questioning needs to stop there.”