A Dark Night, a Hearing Dog, and a Day in Court – Part One
By Cheryl Heppner
Editor: I’m sure you’re familiar with Cheryl Heppner’s outstanding work, but you may not have heard about this incredible effort to make a difference in Milwaukee. I hope you enjoy this story as much as I did.
This is part one of four parts.
On June 17, 2010, after taking notes at the opening ceremony of the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) convention in Milwaukee, I went to dinner with some friends I’d made at past HLAA conventions. We had a pleasant and delicious meal at Coast, a restaurant on the shores of Lake Michigan.
At about 11:20 p.m., we left the restaurant. Outside were three cabs which had arrived to take those in our party back to their various hotels. As I tried to enter the first cab with some of my friends, the driver jumped out and vehemently said he would not take a dog in the cab. I tried to explain that Galaxy was a hearing dog, and told the driver that it was against the law to refuse us. I said that if he did not take us to our hotel I would have to write down his cab number and report him. Two friends, Pam Ransom and Marcia Finisdore, attempted to support me, to no avail. Still carrying my steno pad with notes from the opening ceremony, I flipped to the first blank page, grabbed a pen from my purse, and wrote the cab number.
I went to the next cab in line, opened the door, and tried to enter. I was met with a second refusal, and despite a stern explanation by Pam Ransom about the law this driver also drove off without us. His cab number joined the first one in my steno book.
Thankfully the third cab driver, who had witnessed all this, agreed to transport us.
The experience really upset me. Back in 1991 I routinely encountered discrimination like this, but as the 20th anniversary of passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act approached, I thought my days of having to advocate and educate about my hearing dog, if not completely finished, would never again be met with such animosity.
The next morning, before going to the convention, I walked to a nearby building that housed a police station. I wanted to see if I could get a referral to whatever entity handled disability-related complaints for the city. My goal was to see that Yellow Cab be required to train its drivers about nondiscrimination of individuals with service animals so that no other individual with a service animal would experience what I had.
In the building that housed the police station, I met and received support from Officers Angst and Halm. My request was pretty far off the beaten track for them, but they were enthusiastic about trying to help. I smiled when one of the suggestions they passed on was to call the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, DC. I explained that my intention was not to punish but to educate, as every single person I had met in Milwaukee had been nothing short of wonderful, and I didn’t want to bring potentially bad publicity to the city just because of the hurtful actions of two cab drivers.
Officers Angst and Halm introduced me to Julie Braun and Tom Arden of the Attorney General’s office, who also set about trying to help. While I waited for them to make phone calls, Galaxy enjoyed showing off some of her skills, and I enjoyed talking about the work she does for me and about Canine Companions for Independence, the wonderful program that trained us to work together.
Unfortunately that particular day was a furlough day so most of the city offices were closed and we could not find the right place for disability-related complaints. Eventually a call was made to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s office, where one of his staff conveyed how very upset the Mayor was to hear that the incident with the cab drivers happened in his city. Although I never did find the appropriate place to lodge a complaint and make my request for training of the cab company, I felt very supported by all the wonderful people who wanted very much to assist me.
On June 21, my first day back in the NVRC office after HLAA’s Milwaukee convention, I received an email from Officer Walter Tyshynsky of the Milwaukee Police Department. He said he was sorry to hear that I had an unpleasant experience with the city’s taxicab service and would like to speak with me about the situation.
I replied with the details he requested such as the time when the first cab driver refused to take me and the numbers of the cabs that the drivers were using. After reading my account, Officer Tyshynsky said he would like to cite the two cab drivers who “failed to provide service.”
He said that what the cabbies had done was completely against city ordinance and that there was a $374 citation for refusing to convey an orderly passenger. And asked whether there were any local residents who were witnesses who could possibly be used as complainants. Unfortunately I did not know of or see any local witnesses. We’d spent a lengthy time enjoying the food and camaraderie at the restaurant and the streets around were deserted except for our party.
I did, however, tell Officer Tyshynsky that Pam Ransom, who tried to intercede on my behalf and does not have hearing loss, would probably be the best witness from our group. He later followed up and asked her a number of questions.
Within a week I’d also heard from Shannon Hayes, staff assistant to Mayor Barrett, touching base on the cab issue and encouraging me to call the Mayor’s Office if I had questions or concerns. I let her know that Officer Tyshynsky had been diligently gathering information from me. I asked that she let Mayor Barrett know that his very supportive response, and that of others from whom I sought help, had convinced me that Milwaukee is one of the friendliest and most welcoming cities I have ever visited.
In early August, I heard again from Officer Tyshynsky. He requested some personal information from me because it was required to make charges against the cabbies. I provided the information but said that more than a monetary fine I would appreciate a requirement that Yellow Cab educate its drivers on nondiscrimination of passengers with service dogs. In response he told me that the cabbies knew their responsibilities but had denied being told that Galaxy was a service dog, or that anyone had any kind of disability.
Some weeks later, on September 27, I received three subpoenas from the City of Milwaukee. They required me to appear in Milwaukee Municipal Court on October 25, 2010 to give evidence in action against the two cab drivers.
I was completely taken aback. It had never been my intention to go to court, and the language of the subpoena was frightening – with “you are hereby commanded to appear in person before the judge” and “failure to appear may result in punishment for contempt, which may include monetary penalties, imprisonment, and other sanctions” – which made me feel like I was being a victim twice.
Everyone with whom I consulted about my options told me that if I did not show up in court it was most likely that the charges against the cab drivers would be dismissed.
I wrestled with what I should do. I didn’t like my options. I had invested a lot of time and effort in pursuing action, with the hope it would have a lasting impact through education that would end discriminatory practices and wanted to see it through. Yet appearing in court would take away two days for travel and the trial, days I really needed to catch up at NVRC, and the round trip cost would not be cheap. An additional worry was the possibility that if I flew to Milwaukee and the trial was postponed, I’d have gained nothing but the expense of returning again.
I talked about this with my NVRC family and other colleagues. And I got a lot of support from a group of hearing dog partners who, along with their dogs, had also graduated from Canine Companions for Independence. Some of them, bless their hearts, asked if they could send me money to help pay for the trip.
(c)2010 by Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons (NVRC), 3951 Pender Drive, Suite 130, Fairfax, VA 22030; www.nvrc.org