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Taxi Discrimination Still An Issue

Editor's Note: The 1997 convention of the National Federation of the Blind was an upbeat experience. Blind people came together from all over the world to celebrate progress and plan for the future. In the midst of such a positive gathering it would be easy to believe that gross violations of our civil rights were a thing of the past. Sadly, Dr. Sandi Dewdney, the president of our newly-formed Vancouver Island chapter, found to her horror that ignorance is alive and well-at least in the heart of one taxi driver.

Several conventioneers reported problems with taxis either failing to serve people with guide dogs or serving them in a less than courteous manner. Sandi Dewdney experienced assault and battery at the hands of a driver who seemed to believe that his own objections to dogs were more important than the basic human dignity of a passenger.

The incident received extensive coverage on television and in the press in New Orleans and Victoria. The driver, Mohmoud Awad, is facing charges. Future editions of the Canadian Blind Monitor will report on the outcome of the legal case.

One can only hope the press coverage and public outcry from this incident will raise awareness in New Orleans sufficiently that other blind passengers will not have to face similar outrages. If that is the final result, then some good will have come from a thoroughly bad experience.

It is to the credit of the many Federationists, and others, who took the time to write and get involved. Those efforts will have a cumulative effect. Because of that work, the next blind guide-dog user who hails a taxi in New Orleans will have a better chance of getting an uneventful ride.

Here is an article written by Ed and Toni Eames which appeared in the "New Orleans Times- Picayune".

We were horrified by the recent incident in which a New Orleans taxi driver allegedly attempted to drag a blind woman out of his cab because she was accompanied by her guide dog.

At 5:25 PM on Saturday, July 5, Sandi Dewdney was leaving the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) had just concluded. A taxi was hailed, and she and her guide dog entered the back seat. The driver reportedly became so enraged he leaped out of his seat and began dragging Dr.Dewdney out of the cab while screaming, "No dog, no dog!"

Two bellhops from the Hyatt had to pull him off to rescue her. Dewdney said that during the fracas she pleaded with the driver to let her go. Earlier that week, she had broken her wrist in a swimming accident and was still in considerable pain.

Working with the Hyatt staff, this blind Canadian conventioneer contacted the police and was informed later that the driver had been arrested and was in jail.

These are the bare facts as reported. For us, a blind couple partnered with guide dogs, they represent an encapsulated history of discrimination, a nightmare come true.

For most non-disabled people, the word "taxi" brings pleasurable recollections of escaping from a downpour, being dropped off at a favorite restaurant, or arriving at a hotel after a long journey-and the hassle of retrieving luggage at an airport.

On the other hand, most blind people partnered with guide dogs shudder when they hear the word taxi. It conjures up incidents of verbal abuse and denial of service. As former New York City residents and in our current careers as writers and lecturers, we have faced our fair share of taxi refusals and confrontations, but they have never escalated to the level of physical violence reportedly faced by Sandi Dewdney.

As co-ordinators of the National Federation of the Blind:Advocates for Equality Canine Concerns Committee, we attempted to educate New Orleans taxi drivers about the legally guaranteed rights of blind people to be accompanied by their guide dogs in all places of public accommodation, including taxis. Before the convention, Ron Wilson, a New Orleans civil rights attorney, sent a letter to the head of the taxi authority and was assured that notices would be distributed to all companies. Ali and Bob Gerald printed fliers and left them with doormen and bellhops at the two hotels where most participants in the convention would be staying.

On the eve of the convention, which brought to New Orleans more than 3,000 blind participants, WWL-TV featured us and our guide dogs in its evening news broadcast and noted our right to obtain the services of taxis.

Apparently, a number of cabbies did not get the message.

In the July 7, "Times-Picayune" article describing the physical abuse suffered by Sandi Dewdney, the driver, a Muslim, claimed Dr.Dewdney's guide dog was a ritually unclean animal and being in the dog's presence would be a violation of his religious beliefs.

Like freedom of speech, freedom to practice one's religion has limits. Just as one cannot endanger others by screaming "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, one cannot claim the constitutional right of freedom of religion by denying the civil rights of disabled people whose lives are enhanced by working with trained dogs.

An essential element of being a taxi driver is providing service to the public, and part of that public consists of blind people and their guide dogs. Anyone unwilling or unable to meet this job requirement should not be driving a taxi.

As social scientists, we are committed to the idea of multi-culturalism and a society based on diversity. However, the glue that binds our society together is a belief in the sanctity of our legal system.

Under Islamic law, a man can have four wives. A Muslim woman does not have the same legal standing as a man and, in many Muslim countries, a husband can mutilate or even kill a wife believed to have committed adultery. Their religion-based practices are not tolerated in our country. Violation of our laws in such circumstances can lead to imprisonment.

National Federation of the Blind's philosophy is based on a three-pronged approach to first-class citizenship for blind people: equality, security, and opportunity. The message that NFB will not tolerate second-class citizenship for its members needs to be heard by New Orleans taxi drivers: If you live in our country, you must abide by our laws.