Published: Sunday, August 01, 2010
By LUTHER TURMELLE, Journal Register News Service
Kim Mucha feels dumped on.
And so does Big Y.
Mucha was banned from Big Y Supermarkets’ North Haven location last month after her service dog pooped in the store’s aisles. Mucha claims the ban is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Officials at Big Y say Mucha is trying to sully the reputation of the Springfield, Mass.-based company. A spokeswoman said Big Y has a record of fairly treating shoppers with disabilities at all of the chain’s 54 locations in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“We must be doing something right,” said Claire D’Amour-Daley, a spokeswoman for the family-owned chain.
D’Amour-Daley disputes Mucha’s version of the events that occurred in June and resulted in the Air Force veteran from Wallingford getting a letter from Big Y saying that if she returns to the store, she will be arrested for trespassing.
The dispute between Mucha and the supermarket chain is being played out in the shadow of the 20th anniversary of the ADA, celebrated July 26.
Service dogs are permitted in businesses under specific guidelines set forth in the ADA. Mucha relies on her service dog, Ivy, for balance.
“They treated me and my dog like criminals,” a visibly frustrated Mucha said last week, with Ivy lying quietly at her feet. “My dog pooped on the floor and I cleaned it up right away. I’ve worked in supermarkets before, and I’ve seen old people and kids make messes on the floor and nobody ever threatened to have them arrested.”
Ivy serves two purposes: to help Mucha retain her balance, which was affected during an accident she suffered as a military policewoman while in the Air Force, and to pick up low-lying packages and items from the floor or shelves, a skill Ivy learned through the East Coast Assistance Dogs program, which has a location in Torrington.
Mucha is considering legal action against the chain, which has 25 Connecticut stores, including five in the New Haven area.
But, according to D’Amour-Daley, Big Y was within its rights to banish Mucha and Ivy from the store.
D’Amour-Daley disputes Mucha’s version of the story, saying Ivy was not anywhere near her owner, was not on a leash and defecated on the floor several times, including once in an area near where Big Y employees were making sandwiches for customers.
“We take our responsibility to insure the public health very seriously in the communities that we serve,” D’Amour-Daley said. “At the same time, we’ve worked with customers who have service dogs before without any complaints. We normally ask that they just give us a call ahead of time.”
According to Kevin Barry, a Quinnipiac University law professor, the ADA is designed to help people with disabilities to move about in public places and at businesses with the same freedom as their able-bodied counterparts.
“Not doing so is discrimination — it is a denial of access to people with disabilities by refusing to reasonably modify existing policies,” Barry said. “Under the ADA, service animals are not limited to guide dogs, which are used by some people who are blind.”
Service animals include signal dogs (used by people with hearing impairments to alert them to sounds) and any other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability, such as a dog trained to assist people with mobility impairments.
No advance notice is needed to bring a service dog into a business, he said. The dogs are identified by a green vest with a white-lettered “service dog” logo, Barry said.
“This is a sobering reminder of how far the ADA still has to go in achieving its promise of equality of opportunity,” he said. “Twenty years ago, the woman you describe may have stayed home rather than endure the embarrassment and headache of going to the market. Twenty years later, she shouldn’t have to.”
The ADA permits retailers like Big Y to banish service dogs only if the animal’s actions have “fundamentally altered” how a business operates, Barry said.
“Apparently, the only ‘business’ implicated here was the dog’s, and the woman cleaned it up,” he said. “Does Big Y send letters to parents of 2-year-olds who accidentally engage in similar kinds of ‘business’?”
Mucha said she was embarrassed because of the way the manager of the North Haven store reacted, yelling at her and summoning workers that “looked like they were wearing haz-mat suits.”
While D’Amour-Daley would not comment on the store manager’s demeanor, she said Big Y responds differently to the release of bodily fluids in the store than if a glass bottle of soda broke in one of the aisles.
“There is a certain protocol for cleaning up bodily fluids,” she said.
Call Luther Turmelle at 203-789-5706 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 203-789-5706 end_of_the_skype_highlighting.
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