Big University Bookstore
On a glorious spring day in 2013, I stood in the parking lot of a local university and rolled my power chair down a portable ramp at the back of our SUV. A perfect blue sky above and softness in the air signaled an end, finally, to the long winter.
My husband, Ed, folded the ramp and put it back into the hatch as I walked to the passenger door. Inside was a large, tall Golden Retriever mix, my service dog Aslan. Aslan and I were a new team, just matched in February. We were still getting to know one another. I held Aslan’s leash as he jumped out of the car and took his place at my side. We walked back to the power chair together.
Twenty-five years before, as a grad student on this large and hilly campus, I’d been gutted by the mismatch between my limited physical abilities and those required to walk to classes and libraries, to carry books and papers. Subsequent years brought more shame as my health declined and I was increasingly unable to keep up with “normal” expectations.
A very late diagnosis, at 49, of a genetic condition, and an even later acceptance that I am Disabled helped me be proud of who I am, and to find tools and accommodations that, bit by bit helped me to reclaim my life. Instead of shame, I felt triumph on my return to this university, if only for a short visit. I looked forward to using my chair and my service dog to traverse the campus that had so injured and defeated me when I was younger.
I sat down in the chair, and rolled over to kiss Ed goodbye. He left to attend a conference. Then, Aslan and I explored. I grinned from ear to ear, soaking up the sun. I was thrilled to be moving freely, accompanied by my gentle giant of a service dog. After touring some gardens, Aslan and I motored over toward the main plaza of the campus. Bookstores are among my favorite places, and I remembered that the campus bookstore had an automatic door control plate on a pole outside the bank of front doors, but the plaza had been rebuilt since my days at Big U, and when I got there, I discovered that the pole and plate were missing.
I rolled back and forth, looking for an automatic door plate that would allow me and Aslan entry. I couldn’t find one. I tried pulling on one of the doors, but they were too heavy for me to open, even with Aslan’s help. Finally, through the doors, I could see a young, eager-looking staff member coming forward to help me. His gangly arms twitched out to either side as he approached us. As he got closer, I could see that his name tag identified him as “Jeff.” Blond, blue eyed, and well over 6 feet tall, he towered over me as I sat in my chair.
Jeff grinned widely as he pulled open one of the doors. We went through, only to be met by another bank of doors. Expert maneuvering was required to get the chair and the dog through both sets of doors without having a door close on my chair or on my dog’s tail.
I was very grateful to Jeff, so grateful that I ignored my discomfort when he began to fawn and coo over Aslan.
“I LOVE him!!” Jeff said, as he stuck his face into Aslan’s and ruffled his ears.
A regal beast, Aslan sat tall and stared into the far distance as Jeff invaded his personal space—and mine. I felt irritation rise, but breathed out calm.
“Ok, Jeff. Thank you for your help,” I said, evenly. “We have some shopping to do.”
I turned to my service dog.
“Let’s go, Aslan!” I said, giving him the cue to trot at my side.
I rolled over to the shirts, to see if there might be a sweatshirt in Ed’s size. Pretty soon Jeff was there, too.
“Oh my God!” he said. “I LOVE him so MUCH!”
“Ok, Jeff. That’s enough,” I said, trying to be firm but kind as Jeff made kissy-face noises in front of Aslan’s nose.
“Aslan is working. You need to let him work. We’re going to shop now,” I said, more loudly than I had before, hoping to attract the attention of someone in authority.
My words had no impact.
As Aslan stood at my side, Jeff suddenly bent his knees, folded his body at the waist and laid his entire, very long torso against Aslan’s long back. Jeff grasped Aslan around the chest, behind his front legs, hugging him tight, and laid his head against the back of Aslan’s massive cranium.
“I love him, love him, love him!!!” Jeff said.
With a sharp intake of breath, I jumped back in my chair. I really didn’t know what to do. I looked around, but from my seated position, I didn’t see anyone who could help me dislodge this person from my dog’s back.
Where is the supervisory staff? I wondered. There are cameras everywhere. Doesn’t anyone see what this young man is doing to my service dog? But, no one appeared to help.
I had no idea what a reasonable response would be to this utterly unreasonable situation, so I froze. I did nothing. I just waited for him to get tired of hugging Aslan. My options were limited by the fact that I felt that I couldn’t afford to antagonize Jeff because I might require his help to get out of the store. I tried, instead, to ignore him, to disengage.
In the long moments that Jeff spent hugging Aslan, I counted the systemic failures that brought me to this situation: lack of an automatic door opener; inappropriate training of staff (i.e., Jeff); inappropriate training of supervisory staff, who could not, I thought, at this point, be unaware of Jeff’s actions. Jeff, I was sure, meant no harm, and his immature and intrusive behavior led me to suspect that he was also Disabled in some way. The store apparently had no plan to accommodate either of our disabilities.
Jeff finally let go of Aslan.
“You need to leave Aslan alone, now,” I said, slowly, looking at Jeff directly in his eyes.
Jeff walked away. I prayed he’d stay away.
I decided to go up to the second floor, hoping that Jeff was a first-floor staffer. I was determined not to be chased from the store. The only elevator available for my use was a freight elevator in a back corner that I remembered from my student days. As we rolled over to the elevator, I breathed a sigh of relief; it seemed as though I’d given Jeff the slip.
But, no. Just as the doors were about to close, Jeff hopped on the elevator with us, petting Aslan all the way up to the second floor.
We exited the elevator. I ignored Jeff. Aslan and I turned a corner, and I stopped to look at some books.
Then, Jeff was back at my side. I backed my chair up and turned around to face him. Aslan was now in front of me, between me and Jeff. I was just about to ask Jeff, very nicely, to let us shop by ourselves when he swooped down and picked a very startled Aslan up high in the air. With one arm under Aslan’s tail, the other around the front of his chest, Jeff held Aslan as though he were cradling a lamb. Jeff held my dog so high that while Aslan’s very long legs dangled near Jeff’s belt buckle, his head was higher than Jeff’s own.
Jeff nuzzled Aslan’s neck and told me, again and again, how very much he loved him.
Aslan, a large and lean 70-plus-pound dog, was quite unaccustomed to being picked up by anyone. Aslan turned baleful brown eyes to me, and I held his gaze, trying to reassure him that all would be well. Even for a dog with Aslan’s serene temperament and extraordinary training, this was a bizarre situation.
As Jeff continued to hold Aslan, I became aware that I was gasping—short breaths, high in my chest—and had lost eye contact with Aslan. Instead, I was scanning the room, eyes moving back and forth, like a trapped animal, as I considered my options. I tried to pull myself back into my body, tried, again, to transmit calmness to Aslan with a steady gaze and a smile that I hoped was comforting.
I couldn’t afford to upset Aslan, lest he struggle with Jeff and fall. I couldn’t afford to upset Jeff, lest he drop my dog. I considered standing up, but figured that could freak Jeff out, and since I wasn’t strong enough to take Aslan from him safely, pointless. I trembled from head to toe, praying that my dog would be safe.
Finally, I looked at Jeff, and in what I hoped was a measured tone, I said, “Put the dog down, Jeff. Jeff, put my dog down. JEFF, put my dog DOWN! NOW!!”
After what felt like an eternity, Jeff put Aslan down. Aslan rushed back to my side. The most important thing, now, was to keep Aslan from harm. Tears gathered; I blinked them back. I needed to get out of this store, NOW, but I couldn’t open the doors by myself.
“We need to leave now, Jeff,” I said, my voice flat and tight.
Jeff’s eyebrows shot up. He stopped moving. He seemed to be aware, on some level, that he’d overstepped his bounds. As we approached the elevator, I said, “Aslan and I are taking the elevator downstairs by ourselves.”
Jeff must have taken the stairs, because as soon as we exited the elevator, he was at our side again.
I turned my calmest face to him and said, “Will you please open the doors so we can leave?”
Jeff’s face fell. A blush spread up his neck, ears, and cheeks. His actions became more uncoordinated. His arms shot out to his sides again, and he impulsively let go of the door before Aslan was all the way through. I sped up and took the blow from the door with my chair to spare Aslan injury. I followed Aslan out the door, onto the plaza. Finally, we were out in the fresh air, and free of Jeff. I was relieved, but shaken—newly aware of my vulnerability as a Disabled person.
When I reported my experience to management, in writing, their initial response was to offer me a small gift certificate and to tell me that they were sending a flyer about service dog etiquette to their employees. I found this response inadequate and insulting.
I declined their gift certificate and negotiated, instead, a larger contribution to Canine Companions, the organization that had trained Aslan so amazingly, but I never received any confirmation that the donation was actually sent. I communicated to management that a flyer was inadequate training. I offered to return to campus with Aslan to provide them with in-person training regarding public access laws and etiquette around service dogs. I explained that I had training and teaching experience, both corporate and academic, and that my husband, a NYS Assistant Attorney General, could verify that I was providing them with accurate legal information. They declined my offer. Management told me that they’d conduct their own training, but I have no way of knowing if they actually did so.
Management did not address the other systemic problems that led to an employee putting my service dog’s safety in jeopardy. Years later, when I made a return visit, no automatic door opener had been installed at the front entrance to the bookstore. Management didn’t explain why Jeff’s behavior wasn’t interrupted by supervisory employees. Management made no commitment to better train its supervisory employees, and instead, it led me to believe that Jeff was to be fired. This was not the outcome I wanted; I wanted Jeff to be supported with better training and supervision.
I learned a few things from this encounter. Needing help can put a Disabled person in a “one-down” position in which they feel that they owe something to the person who helped them. Free and fair access is a right, not a privilege—but all of us, Disabled and able-bodied alike, have been socially conditioned to defer to those who help us—and that can backfire, especially for Disabled people. On the other hand, demanding respect and proper treatment can cause resentment and anger, leaving us without needed assistance. It’s difficult to know which side of the line to inhabit.
I did learn to be more assertive, at least in situations where I didn’t need help. A few weeks after our experience at Big University Bookstore, Aslan and I went to the mall. As I rolled around the Food Court, we were approached by a twentysomething man-child. Blond ringlets brushed his shoulders and he wore an air of entitlement. He buzzed around us like an unwelcome insect.
“I want to pet your dog,” he demanded with a pout.
“No, he’s working,” I said without emotion.
He started to wheedle.
“Your dog wants me to pet him. It’s not fair to make him work. Petting him would be a reward,” he said as he leaned in, way too close for comfort.
“NO!” I barked. “Back OFF!” I shouted, loud enough for others to hear.
He persisted. I pulled out my phone
“I’m counting to three. If I can still see you when I get to three, I’m calling the police.” I said.
“One. . . .”
He left. Quickly.
Did I overreact? Perhaps. But we were safe, and that is what mattered most to me.
I am happy to talk to people who approach me respectfully. I spent so many years isolated by illness that I value the opportunity my service dog gives me to connect with other people, however briefly. But no one is welcome to force that connection. As in other contexts, “no” means “no.”
Finally, most importantly, I learned that real change requires accountability. Talk is cheap. To my knowledge, there was no follow-through on my complaints to Big U’s Bookstore management. So, the next time I encountered a truly egregious access situation, I took it to the governing Civil Rights Commission, and I won both a settlement and an enforceable action plan for changes that would benefit not just me, but other similarly Disabled people.
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About the Author
Jeanne Earley McArdle is a Disabled writer, currently enrolled in Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine Certificate of Professional Achievement and CUNY’s Disability Studies Advanced Certificate programs. McArdle holds an MPS in Communication from Cornell University, and worked as a Communication Specialist at General Electric. A story about their service dog appears in The New York Times “Tiny Love Stories” series and was anthologized in 2019 by editors Daniel Jones and Miya Lee in Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.