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Coping with Mistreatment

written by Luis Carlos Montalván
on November 19, 2009

We all depend on everyday, universal boundaries and agreements to stay safe. When we violate those boundaries, tragedies unfold. I learned this basic social agreement as a child, automatically followed it as a man, taught it and subscribed to it in service to my country, including two tours of duty in Iraq. After 17 years of honorable military service, I put aside my Purple Heart, Bronze Stars and service medals, sought treatment for my combat wounds and embraced my new life as a former Army Captain. Coping with post-traumatic stress reaction challenges me daily to embrace what is possible and to take risks, hoping that most people will follow the basic social agreements that keep us all safe.

I now walk into the world each day with a gentle, well-trained golden retriever named Tuesday, who wears his bright red, clearly-marked service cape as he accompanies me when I attend class at Columbia, travel on a train, ride the subway, enter an elevator or dine at restaurants of every category imaginable. Generally, we are greeted with the same respect and access that most would expect to be granted to a person who depends on a dog to help him or her see, or help negotiate the world from a wheelchair. Even if people do not approve or understand, most afford the access I deserve according to the spirit or at least the letter of laws regarding civil rights, human rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Most. But unfortunately, not all.

Luis and his service dog, Tuesday

Luis Carlos Montalván and his service dog, Tuesday.

Following a particularly disturbing incident in December 2008, when Tuesday and I were hassled by McDonald's employees at a Brooklyn restaurant, who claimed service dogs were not allowed in the establishment, I wrote a letter to McDonald's president Ralph Alvarez. That letter resulted in the regional manager, Ms. Claudia Alvarez, phoning me to discuss the incident. I made it clear that McDonald's needed to train its staff on the ADA and suggested that stickers be placed on their establishment's front doors indicating, "No pets; Assistance Animals welcome."

In January 2009, Ms. Alvarez, called me again and informed me that her employees were trained and that she had placed the suggested stickers on the McDonald's in her region.

I felt good about the outcome and thought that McDonald's had indeed demonstrated corporate social responsibility.

On January 28, 2009, Tuesday and I returned to McDonald's to eat. I ordered and we sat down. That's when Manager Carlos Salas approached the table and asked me leave.

"I'm sorry, but no dogs are allowed," said Salas.

I felt the onset of a migraine headache and replied, "Have you read the sticker on your front doors?"

"Yes. It says, 'No dogs allowed,'" said Salas.

"Why don't you go downstairs and re-read the sign and then we'll talk about it," I replied.

Upset that yet another incident was happening, I got up and left. I could no longer stomach food and my migraine was getting worse.

Two days later, Tuesday and I returned to the McDonald's to take photos of the stickers on their storefront to include in another letter to Alvarez. The McDonald's was closed due to health code violations, but I was able to take photos of the stickers.

That's when members of the staff began hurling insults in English and Spanish, and throwing plastic garbage can tops in our direction. Two employees punched me while on the sidewalk outside of McDonald's. In disbelief, I kept taking photos of them. As they stopped, I called the NYPD, who quickly arrived on the scene.

I was embarrassed and angry by the unnecessary incident, which triggered a cascade of emotional and psychological symptoms that no one could see but which undermined my capacity to function that day and for a number of weeks thereafter, leaving me wary of how we might be received in even the most ordinary places.

Children and adults with often invisible or less immediately identifiable disabilities, such as chronic pain, post-traumatic stress, seizure disorders, allergies and autism, just to name a few, can become independent and self-reliant with the assistance of a dog. We are all a slip of a chair or a terrifying moment away from an entirely different life, requiring assistance from resources that could include the blessing and boundaries of a service dog. As I speak out on behalf of people with disabilities, I hope we all come to understand that it may not be "if" but "when" we will need assistance as a result of an illness or an injury. Even out of overriding self-interest, if not out of compassion and empathy, we all benefit when we embrace the letter and spirit of ADA.

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Luis Carlos Montalván author image

Luis Carlos Montalván

Iraq Veteran and journalist. On being a veteran with disability issues.

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