Saturday, April 03, 1999

Cabbie refuses ride to guide dog

Rights issue stymies city

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Annie McEachrin, with her guide dog Jessica, works out on a rowing machine at Gamble-Nippert YMCA in Westwood.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
        For Annie McEachrin, her 4-year-old black Labrador, Jessica, is more than a companion. Blind since birth, Ms. McEachrin relies on Jessica for mobility, traveling everywhere with a hand on the dog guide's harness.

        Hassan Taher is a devout Muslim who adheres strictly to his interpretation of Islamic law. It's a law, he believes, that considers dogs impure. He won't allow them in his taxicab.

        On Feb. 4, when Ms. McEachrin, 43, tried to hail Mr. Taher's cab, their rights clashed — setting up a battle between the rights of the disabled and religious freedom that hadn't been seen before.

        Ronn Kolbash, spokesman for the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC) in Columbus, said the agency knew of no other case in Ohio like Ms. McEachrin's.

        “It probably would be the first time we've seen such a defense,” Mr. Kolbash said.

        It's definitely new territory for the city of Cincinnati. Several weeks after the incident at Fifth and Elm streets downtown, Ms. McEachrin filed a complaint with the city, which licenses taxicab companies and drivers through the safety department. That department handed it off to the city's legal division.

        “At least arguably, each of them raise legal issues that need to be resolved,” said James Johnson, the assistant city solicitor reviewing the complaint.

        Mr. Taher, who has not responded to repeated requests for comment, did respond to the complaint, presenting to the city proof of the Islamic religious conviction that dogs are impure. According to his boss, Sunshine Taxi owner Jamaw Alwali, he also gave the city medical documentation that he is allergic to dogs.

        Federal and state law guarantee dog guides access to all public places and vehicles, but the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment protects Mr. Taher's religious freedom.

        In cases in other states and in Canada, courts typically have ruled that the rights of the disabled person supersede the rights of the taxi driver.

        “We expect adherence (to the state and federal laws), but exactly what to do when you've got competing rights, I guess that's what I'm going to have to work at,” Mr. Johnson said.

        Mr. Johnson said the city will either issue an opinion or hold a hearing, but he declined to say when.

        Ms. McEachrin said she wants to make sure that no other people who use service animals are denied access to a Cincinnati taxicab.

        “I don't want it to seem like I'm bitter about this, I'm more concerned about people with disabilities being treated fairly,” Ms. McEachrin said during an interview at her Westwood home. “It's essential that taxi drivers understand the rules and regulations and be aware of the consequence of not obeying them.”

        Situations like this have cropped up nationwide, said Joanne Ritter, spokeswoman for Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc., a private, nonprofit San Rafael, Calif.-based organization that provides and trains dog guides and owners free of charge.

        “It's at best a nuisance; at worst, it underscores the feelings that anyone being dis criminated against has. Blindness is enough of a hassle in your everyday life without being denied access to things they have every right to,” Ms. Ritter said.

        Mr. Alwali said he does not require his drivers to allow dogs guides in the cabs.

        “We don't have a policy against dogs, unless your religion says not” to handle them, Mr. Alwali said.

        There is some dispute among Muslims in America about the status of dogs. The Koran, the Muslim holy book, allows for dogs to mingle with people as long as they have a useful purpose. In later religious documents, called hadiths, dogs are reviled and anything touched by a dog's saliva must be washed six times with water and once with sand.

        Dr. Inayat Malik, president of the board of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati in West Chester, said the religion places a higher emphasis on helping those in need.

        “It's unfortunate that the person said he could not let the dog into the cab for religious reasons, and I think it represents a limited understanding of the religion,” Dr. Malik said.

        But Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., referred to the hadiths and defended the driver.

        “People from the Middle East especially, we have been indoctrinated with a kind of fear of dogs,” Mr. Awad said. “The driver has a genuine fear and he acted in good faith. He's acted in accordance with his religious beliefs.”

        An estimated 6,000 to 10,000 Muslims live in the Tristate.

        The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and Ohio statutes guarantee service animal access to all public accommodations and public conveyances.

        Denying access to a person with a dog guide, according to Ohio law, is a fourth-degree misdemeanor.

        There are fewer than 100 people in the Tristate who use dog guides or service animals, according to the Cincinnati Association for the Blind. Ms. McEachrin, a talking book coordinator and public relations representative for the Cincinnati Association for the Blind, said she is waiting to see how the city responds before contacting the OCRC. She has 60 days from the date of the incident to file a complaint with the agency. She has considered hiring an attorney.

        “If it were to come to that, it would be not solely for myself,” she said. “We (dog guide users) don't have a choice; access is something we need to try to function independently.”

Q&A: Service animal laws

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