On Friday, July 11 at about 7:15 p.m., my wife, Merry Schoch, and I entered the McDonald’s Restaurant located at 1002 S. 78th Street in Tampa, Fla. This store is a Casper’s company franchise. Both Merry and I are blind and use guide dogs. Our dogs were both in harness and were obviously guiding us. We stood together in the lobby for a few minutes waiting to place our order. When we approached the counter, a young man came from the back of the restaurant and stated that the manager told him to tell us that dogs were not allowed. We shared these were service dogs and the female employee taking our order stated such, as well. I then asked to speak with his manager. He replied that his manager did not speak English. Merry stated to the female employee that she found it difficult to believe that the manager did not speak English and such conduct was being encountered. The female employee was very apologetic, stating she knew service animals were allowed. I asked her for the name of the manager and was told it was Olga Montana. We ordered our food, got our drinks and sat down to eat.
As we ate our meals, we discussed with each other that we needed to ask for a translator, educate the manager, and video record this interaction. Beginning at 7:37 p.m., we recorded an introduction before moving toward the counter area. (This introduction and the following interaction can be viewed by going to the link provided later in this narrative.) As we began to approach the counter, a woman stopped us. Merry asked to speak with the manager and the woman identified herself as the manager. Contradictory to the male employees assertion and as the recording clearly demonstrates, the manager does speak English, although she does assert “only a little”. She seems to have no problem understanding us; however, she also seems disinterested in what merry was saying to her, as evidenced by the fact that she continually turns her head away from us and finally simply walks away. Her apologies seem insincere and there was never an offer to resolve the issue. Rather, she shifted the blame to her employee, putting him on the spot and he shifts the blame to another employee, indicating that he was the one who told him to confront us about our service dogs. No matter under whose direction the employee acted, the manager is ultimately accountable, yet she takes no responsibility and seems to develop a ruse that she speaks little English. I contend it is a ruse because the female employee who took our order and attempted to intervene at the time of the confrontation was taking a break in the lobby after our recorded discussion with the manager and she told us the manager speaks better English than she is letting on.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a “Service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” (28 CFR Part 36.104) According to the ADA, a “public accommodation shall modify policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability.” (28 CFR § 36.302(c)(1)) “A public accommodation may ask if the animal is required because of a disability and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform. A public accommodation shall not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal. Generally, a public accommodation may not make these inquiries about a service animal when it is readily apparent that an animal is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability (e.g., the dog is observed guiding an individual who is blind or has low vision”. (28 CFR § 36.302(c)(6)) As stated earlier, our dogs were in harness and obviously guiding us. According to Florida law, “An individual with a disability is entitled to full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges in all public accommodations.” (413.08(2) f.s.) Florida law further provides that “Any person, firm, or corporation, or the agent of any person, firm, or corporation, who denies or interferes with admittance to, or enjoyment of, a public accommodation or otherwise interferes with the rights of an individual with a disability…commits a misdemeanor of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083.” (413.08(4) f.s.) Second degree misdemeanors are punishable by incarceration of up to 60 days and/or a fine of $500.
We have worked with Casper’s Company in the past to raise awareness among the general public on issues of blindness. We are aware that such conduct is not in keeping with the corporate culture of Casper’s Company nor McDonald’s. What we find most offensive is the conduct of the manager. Rather than taking responsibility for the situation – no matter on whose direction the first employee acted – is how the manager absolves herself of responsibility, seems to discount the issue of discrimination, offers what appeared insincere apologies, blames her entry level employees for the incident, turns her back on us and walks away, leaving her entry level employees with us. In defense of this employee, he seemed to be acting under another’s direction; whether that was of the manager or some other employee – and seemed genuinely and sincerely apologetic for the incident, in stark contrast to the manager. In such a setting, the manager is the ultimate authority, but her conduct demonstrated very poor leadership. We are also disturbed by the manager’s assertions that she speaks very little English. As already stated, she seemed to have no problem understanding us and her employee contradicts this apparent deceit. If this is so, it goes to the integrity of the manager and this behavior reflects poorly on McDonald’s. Please click on the following link to view the aforementioned video.
It was our intention to resolve this issue amicably and attempted to discuss it with bob Conigliaro, Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations for Casper’s Company. The National Federation of the Blind had worked with Mr. Conigliaro in the past on issues of blindness and felt he would fairly and appropriately resolve this issue. This, however, was not the case.
I spoke with Mr. Conigliaro on July 14 at about 4:40 p.m., explained the situation to him, and briefly discussed the incident. He confirmed that Olga Montana spoke perfect English and he would look into the incident. I sent him the above narrative, including the link to the video.
Within 40 minutes, Mr. Conigliaro called me back to tell me how embarrassed I should be by the way my wife and I conducted ourselves. He told me that we were not discriminated against because we were allowed to remain in the restaurant, to which I replied that the discrimination occurred when we were told we were not welcome with our guide dogs. He told us that we handled the situation inappropriately, that we brow-beat his employees, and that we were the ones who discriminated against his employees by asking them how they would feel if they were told they were not welcome because of their ethnicity. Mr. Conigliaro, in his convoluted logic, turns this incident into our fault, absolving Casper’s Company from any responsibility for the blatant discrimination we face! Mr. Conigliaro asserted that the manager in the video is not Olga Montana, but never identified who she is. Mr. Conigliaro asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted this employees to be better trained about the rights of service animal users to which he replied they were already adequately trained. I replied they obviously were not! Mr. Conigliaro stated he was “unwilling to continue on the Merry-go-round” and, like the manager, abruptly ended the call.
Unfortunately, those of us who face discrimination know that we are often made to be the ones at fault, while those who discriminate against us assert they are the victims. We are the ones who are unreasonable. We are the ones who are rude. We are the ones who lack compassion. However, I did not expect this posture from someone I considered our ally! Then again, what else should I expect from a multimillion dollar company whose perspective is the need to protect their assets? He could have resolved this issue in the amicable manner with which we approached it; rather, he chose to take the stance of a victim by failing to take responsibility for his company’s actions and blame the ones who faced the indignities levied against them! Such a tactic has been used in nearly every incident of discrimination I have ever encountered.
Like the manager in the video recording, Mr. Conigliaro has turned his back on us. He tells us we are the ones who are rude by resisting unfair treatment. He tells us our assertiveness in protecting our civil rights by confronting discrimination and educating his employees is brow-beating. He tells us we should accept the insincere apology of a manager who refused to speak to us when we asked and when the incident first occurs and only approaches us when we begin to make a video recording twenty minutes later. Mr. Conigliaro would ask us to believe the manager’s apologies were sincere, in spite of the facts that she kept blaming someone Mr. Conigliaro calls “an entry level employee”, constantly looked away from us, attempted to deceive us into believing she spoke very little English, and then walked away from us without so much as an “Excuse me!”, leaving her entry level employees we are accused of brow-beating behind! Of course, Mr. Conigliaro justifies the manager’s quick exit by telling me she had a multimillion dollar corporation to run. And Mr. Conigliaro has the audacity to tell us we should be the ones who are embarrassed?
Bob Conigliaro contends we created this situation and that we should not be angry with his employees. He may contend it was not discrimination, but no matter how he colors it, discrimination it was. Mr. Conigliaro seems to have never faced the humiliation of discrimination. He probably has never been denied the right to eat in a restaurant, enter a store, ride in a taxicab, obtain a hotel room, rent an apartment, or choose his seat on an airplane. He has likely never faced the indignity of being asked by a doctor who bathes him, has never had a waitress ask his five-year-old what her father wants to drink or had a stranger tell her how proud she should be for the way she takes care of her dad, nor had a bus driver tell him there was a special seat just for people like him. Bob Conigliaro has never faced the humiliation and anxiety those of us who are blind face as we strive to participate in society on terms of equality, never knowing where the next instance of discrimination will occur. And when it does occur to be blamed for its occurrence! Mr. Conigliaro has likely never faced the social, legal, and economic barriers we face as blind people striving to live the lives we want. If Mr. Conigliaro has ever faced such an indignity, he has left it behind as he sits in the seat of the Vice Presidency of his multimillion dollar company that we, as his consumers have helped him build! Mr. Conigliaro may tell me we should be ashamed of the way we confronted the discrimination we encountered by Casper’s Company and McDonald’s; however, we are not ashamed! I am proud of how my wife had the courage to stand up to the injustice! It is Mr. Conigliaro who should be ashamed of how he condoned the unjust and discriminatory actions of his employees toward their consumers and then turns it around to make it our fault! It is his embarrassment and shame that he projects upon us so he can ignore the injustice he promulgates by ignoring this issue and blaming us for his company’s unjust behavior.