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Islam and The Rights of The Disabled

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the July, 1999 issue of the Minaret. The issues discussed in this article arise equally as often here in Canada as they do in the United States.

I wish to thank The Minaret for giving me the opportunity to inform its readers about a problem which, while it pales in significance when compared to the crises faced by our brothers and sisters in Kosovo and elsewhere, is nonetheless worthy of our attention. This issue concerns us because it is happening right here in cities across the United States, and because it involves a violation of the civil rights of disabled persons in the name of Islam. I am referring to the refusal by some of our Muslim brothers who own businesses or drive taxis to serve blind and other disabled people who are accompanied by guide and service dogs on the grounds that their religion prohibits them from allowing these persons into their businesses, taxis, etc. I do not wish to imply that some Muslims are the only ones discriminating against the disabled who use service dogs. This is certainly not the case. However, as a Muslim who is also blind and who has used guide dogs for many years, I have a particular interest in this issue, especially when my fellow Muslims are involved. While I am aware of some hadiths concerning dogs, such as the one which states that a utensil from which a dog has eaten must be washed 7 times before a human can eat from it, I have never heard anyone suggest that these hadiths prohibit the ownership and use of working dogs. Indeed, neither I nor any of the other Muslim guide dog owners I know has ever been instructed that the use of these dogs is forbidden. It, therefore, came as quite a surprise to me when an acquaintance who knows I am a Muslim asked me if Islam forbade its adherents to be in the presence of dogs. It turned out that my friend was interested in this topic because he had been refused service by taxi drivers on a number of occasions because he uses a guide dog, and these drivers told him their religion prohibited them from serving him, so long as he was accompanied by his dog. The matter came to my attention more recently, when I saw a newspaper article which related the story of an Ohio woman who had been denied service on the same grounds by yet another taxi driver, whose boss, also a Muslim, was supporting the driver's claim that to transport the woman and her guide dog violated his religious freedom. Since reading that article several weeks ago, I have discovered that this is far from a rare occurrence. I heard from a woman in a Washington D.C. suburb who stated that she is often unable to get any cab service at all, because a large percentage of the company's drivers are Muslims who refuse her service. Another woman stated that when she wants a cab, she asks a sighted person to hail the cab as though it was that person who wanted the service, while she stands well back and away from them, so the taxi driver will not think it is she and her dog who actually require the ride. Or consider the case of a New York man, who said that things are so difficult in his area that he is actually considering not getting another guide dog when his current companion dies or is retired. Then there is the man in North Carolina who was refused service by an airport cab, which refusal was upheld by the local airport authority on the grounds that religious freedom was more important than this man's civil rights.

These are just a sampling of the many stories which were related to me recently, in response to my request over an Internet mailing list to hear from blind people who had experienced denial of service to them and their dogs because Islam supposedly demanded such action. Since I'm sure my inquiry reached a very small percentage of the guide and service dog-using public, I believe it is fair to say that the many responses I received represent a fraction of the true number of such incidents which occur on a regular basis in this country. These are not, as some of our brothers contend, isolated cases which are not worthy of attention from our responsible community leaders and scholars. I ask each of you who reads this article to put yourself in the position of the people I mentioned above and the many others whose stories are unknown to me or were not mentioned here. These people depend on their guide and service dogs to do a number of things, making it possible for the dog's owner to live a more independent life, to travel with greater confidence or to perform other tasks which would otherwise require the assistance of an attendant. I understand that many of our brothers come from cultures which view dogs very differently from the way I do. And I am well aware that the brothers who refuse to do business with the disabled service dog users truly believe that such refusal is religiously grounded. But cultural attitudes and prejudices should never be presented as religious dogma. I therefore hope that Muslim scholars and responsible community leaders will join together and make a very clear policy statement on this matter, which could serve to educate and reassure our brothers who are violating the law when they refuse to serve disabled people accompanied by trained guide or service dogs.