by Christopher Gray

In the winter issue of "The Braille Forum," I told you about a situation involving an ACB member who was not allowed access to a Ronald McDonald House because she uses a guide dog. Just before Christmas, her son was to undergo serious heart surgery, and the family very much needed to take advantage of the cost savings of staying at one of these facilities rather than at a hotel. First, they were denied because of the dog; more recently, they were told no rooms were now available regardless of any issue with the dog. It seemed so very wrong to me, particularly a few short days before Christmas, for such an injustice to occur.

At the time the article was written, the ACB Advocacy Committee had worked on this issue with Sue Ammeter taking a lead role. Melanie Brunson was involved, Jessie Rayl as the president of the Mountain State Council of the Blind was involved, and Gary Norman as president of the Maryland Area Guide Dog Users was involved. Also, Jeff Thom got in touch with us because his wife had made use of a house in San Francisco, and he hoped to lend a hand by providing information to us. Despite all of our work and phone calls, nothing seemed to be moving in a positive direction.

The morning after writing the article, I woke up and determined that if something could conceivably be done, ACB would make every effort to do it. It was not a time to be discouraged, but rather, it was a time to appeal to people's reason and good will. Most of all, it was a time to take a stand on behalf of a family who was in no position to be pursuing advocacy, but needed to take care of their son, his surgery, and his subsequent recovery should he be fortunate enough to survive the procedure.

During that and the following day, e-mails and phone calls came thick and fast. Sue, Jeff and I were each pursuing matters and coordinating our work with one another. Anyone who has taken on an advocacy challenge like this knows all too well about the many phone calls and the amount of research and time-consuming writing involved in trying to change a situation like this.

By Dec. 15, we had found the people in charge, identified health- related documentation from the Department of Justice with particular relevance to this issue, and had contacted the Ronald McDonald House headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. Day Al-Mohamed made the initial contact with them and supplied the necessary legal information to them. Later, Sue Ammeter also spoke with them in detail. We made them aware that not only was their Baltimore house acting incorrectly, but that we had contacted several other houses around the country and were receiving similar stories that indicated discrimination could easily occur if guide dog users called these houses.

To our surprise, the national headquarters indicated that their official policy requires the acceptance of service dogs, and they acknowledged verbally that every center should comply with this policy. When it came to the specific issue at hand, however, they took a neutral, hands-off policy. Also, they raised several side issues, primarily distractions in our view. Perhaps a request from the hospital had not been properly received. No rooms were now available.

By this time, the family was in Baltimore, the hotel bills were mounting, and heart surgery was under way. ACB could either let the process run its slow and tortuous course, or we could take action. With this in mind, I wrote the following letter and had it faxed and sent via Federal Express to Oak Brook.

December 15, 2005

Dear Ellen:

I am writing you as President of the American Council of the Blind. Sue Ammeter, a member of the Advocacy Services Committee which I chair, reports to me today that the dog guide issue between one of our members and the Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore remains unresolved. This is most unfortunate, and as a result, I have had no choice but to submit the attached article as my Christmas "President's Message" in our national magazine, "The Braille Forum." It will be our Christmas/Winter issue. I am regretful of the need to publicize a situation that could affect any Ronald McDonald House adversely. However, the current situation is very clear to us, and it is one based in blatantly discriminatory activity by your house in Baltimore.

I understand that it is now claimed by the house in Baltimore, quite belatedly, that other issues precluded our member from staying at the house, rather than her use of a guide dog. Of considerable interest to us is the fact that none of these issues were identified when the guide dog issue began to surface two weeks ago. Neither the requester of the room nor the ACB president in her state of residence reported anything about a problem with a referral from a Johns Hopkins social worker or a need to house more than four individuals in a room. Our president in West Virginia contacted the house in Baltimore so we have firm supporting evidence in addition to what we have been told by the requester herself. Our president is a licensed counselor in West Virginia, and the issues claimed to have been raised by your Baltimore house would not have gone unnoticed by her as she deals with such requirements every day as a professional. Every one of our advocates who phoned your Baltimore house were told one thing and only one thing: "We do not permit service dogs." That was their sole message.

The American Council of the Blind is an advocacy and educational organization representing over 20,000 blind Americans. Our magazine, "The Braille Forum," is mailed to over 30,000 members and friends of the organization at least 10 times each year. We do informational mailings at least six times per year to targeted groups of approximately 50,000 individuals per mailing throughout the country advising them of situations regarding blindness. I want to make it very clear to you as a representative of McDonald Charities, the American Council of the Blind will not quietly tolerate discrimination against blind users of guide dogs. Clearly, that is what is happening in the present situation and it needs to be rectified immediately. Our member has suffered and continues to suffer financial injury due to the discriminatory acts of the Baltimore house. The Baltimore house has defiantly and consistently refused to take her guide dog. Others, in addition to the mother requesting a room, can and will verify this fact if necessary.

Having said that, let me tell you with equal emphasis that we are an organization that prides itself on working with others to achieve positive and reasonable outcomes to situations, even those as wrong and unfortunate as this one. We try to emphasize positives over negatives whenever possible. We believe this strengthens our many local and syndicated media contacts around the country and strengthens the partnerships we have built over time with such notable corporations as Bank of America, Verizon Corp., America Online and Wal-Mart stores.

It is my sincere hope that between you, our representative Sue Ammeter, our staff, and the staff at the Baltimore house, a reasonable situation can be organized for this mother and family. I must respectfully request that this be accomplished before the end of the day Friday, December 16, given the nature of this particular situation.

Thank you.

Christopher Gray, President
American Council of the Blind

Then, we waited. Would Ronald McDonald House respond? Would the response contain help for this family?

A day passed with no word. Then, on the afternoon of December 16, I received a phone call from Baltimore. They asked if I would be available to receive a letter from their executive director, to which I replied that I would. Further, I agreed to respond to it during the same afternoon. The letter came as scheduled and read as follows:

December 16, 2005
Mr. Chris Gray
President of the Council for the Blind

Dear Mr. Gray:

Ronald McDonald House Charities in Oak Brook has received your letter and I want to reassure you that the Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore does allow service dogs.

Indeed, the philosophy of the Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) is to treat employees, volunteers, friends of RMHC, and families staying at the Houses fairly and without regard to race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age or physical or emotional ability.

As I have personally told [your member], the statement of concern by our House Manager was, in fact, contrary to our written policy. And subsequently, our House Manager and our entire staff has been reminded of our chapter's policy.

We need to receive a referral from the hospital for the family, in order to begin the admissions process. If we receive a referral, the family and their service dog will be considered for admission.

We recognize that this must be a trying time during the holiday season and as I told your member, we will continue to work with the family to provide housing once the referral form has been received.

Beyond our local chapter, worldwide Ronald McDonald House Charities also embrace a non-discrimination policy, and our national office will be sending out a reminder on the service dog policy in their monthly newsletter which is sent out today.

I apologize for this misunderstanding and I am sorry for any confusion this may have caused for the family. Our waiting list is reviewed daily and once we have received a referral, the family will be made aware of any openings.

Thank you for your interest in the Ronald McDonald House Charities and our Ronald McDonald House program.

Very truly yours,
Marianne Rowan-Braun
Executive Director
RMHC of Baltimore Inc.

The letter was immediately shared with Sue Ammeter. Unquestionably, there were many positive aspects to this letter. The policy espoused by the executive director was the right one. The tone of the letter was positive and polite. And yet it offered nothing of substance to meet this family's immediate needs. After some brief consideration, the following response was sent.

December 16, 2005

Dear Ms. Rowan-Braun:

I am in receipt of and have read your letter of December 16, 2005 regarding the situation of our member and her family. I appreciate your attention to this matter and to your responding to my previous letter to your home office in Illinois.

In rejoinder, I must point out that your response doesn't take a few things properly into account at this point in time. The need for and discussion of a Johns Hopkins referral is a matter that should have been attended to weeks ago as a joint requirement between our member and Ronald McDonald House staff. If you didn't have the referral you needed, that should have been the focus of concern. Instead, concern focused only on our member's use of a guide dog. Unfortunately, I will not allow your and my discussion to be distracted from the core issue by paperwork requirements. I will only say that it is my understanding that our member is looking into the referral. What is your social work staff doing to get the referral?

The bottom line here is that someone needs your assistance, and she needs it now. Had your staff appropriately attended to the relevant details in the first place, we wouldn't be where we are on December 16.

As I see it, you now have two alternatives. They are:

1. Get her in a room.

2. Support her in her hotel.

I hate to lay this out so bluntly. However, it is your organization who created this difficulty. Now, it is you who must resolve it.

Chris Gray, President
American Council of the Blind

In the ensuing hours, more correspondence and telephone calls were exchanged. Finally, in the early evening the Baltimore Ronald McDonald House came through for our member and her family. They volunteered to provide her reimbursement of her expenses incurred due to their error. Further, they agreed to provide the American Council of the Blind their written policies guaranteeing the civil rights of guide dog users. While not all of these commitments have been fully honored at the time we go to press, I have every expectation they will be in the near future. Both the tone and the nature of our correspondence has warmed noticeably since the material being shared with you here, and it seems genuinely possible that what began as a terrible and costly misunderstanding can turn into a respectful and fair understanding between all Ronald McDonald Houses and the American Council of the Blind. In part, perhaps the spirit of Christmas worked some magic. In part, advocacy brought forth the right results, and provided them in a relatively timely manner. This is not a situation that will have to drag on through years of discussion, litigation and eventual settlement.

And finally, let us not lose track of the family in all of our discussion and concern about their civil rights and those of so many others. The young man who underwent the heart surgery survived, and at last report, he is doing well.

Let this be a positive start for 2006, and let us all take hope from this success and others like it we can achieve. While they do not come without effort and commitment, successes can come. We can and will prevail when we advocate for what is right for individuals and groups of our members. As the leading organization of blind people in America, we can and do make a difference.

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