Elkhart man with guide dog hopes to raise awareness of public access laws

An Elkhart man was asked to leave a public area recently because of his guide dog.

Posted on July 15, 2013 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on July 15, 2013 at 3:21 p.m.

ELKHART — Steve Girten of Elkhart was visiting a friend for lunch last week at Eastlake Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, something he said he does on a regular basis.

Girten, who is blind, and his guide dog Woody had settled in at the facility’s dining room when he was asked by a staff member to leave the room and meet with his friend in another room. Girten wasn’t given a reason, but a staff member later told his mother that Girten was asked to move because there was a resident in the dining room with dog allergies.

“They told me I couldn’t have my dog in the dining room,” Girten said Friday, July 12, remembering the incident. “My friend was OK with it. I wasn’t. I didn’t want to make a scene but I knew they were wrong.”

Girten said that the nursing home’s actions are against state law. He’s not angry with the nursing home, but he would like other people to know about the law so this doesn’t happen again — to him or to anyone else.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) businesses and organizations that serve the public must allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals into all areas of their facilities where customers are normally allowed to go. The ADA specifically states that people with disabilities aided by service animals cannot be isolated or treated less favorably than other patrons. Indiana law states that denying a disabled person access to any public accommodation because that person is accompanied by a service animal is a Class C infraction.

Sue Daube, director of Eastlake Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, said Friday that Girten and Woody are welcome at the facility.

“(Staff) just moved him to a different common area,” Daube said. “He was coming to visit his friend, so we just set them up in our activities room. We certainly in no way would discriminate against him.”

She continued, “There was a resident (in the dining room) at that time who (staff) knows is allergic. We have to be very sensitive to all our residents and any allergies or concerns that they have.”

Daube said that Girten and Woody would be welcome in the dining room during any future visit. She added that she didn’t realize Girten was upset about the incident. Girten has owned a guide dog for 35 years and in that time he’s had only two issues with access. A hair salon wouldn’t let him wait inside with his dog while his wife was being served. A fast-food restaurant wouldn’t serve him because of his dog. Both of these incidents happened out of the area, Girten said.

Girten has lived in Elkhart all his life. His wife has passed away, and he and Woody walk most places they need to go. He gets groceries from Walmart with the help of employees there. He goes to Culver’s restaurant every day.

“Basically (Woody) just guides me,” Girten explained Friday afternoon, July 12, while sitting outside Culver’s in Elkhart. “I tell him, ‘Forward,’ and if it’s safe he will go.”

Passers-by aren’t supposed to pet Woody while he’s working, but when he’s at home Girten said Woody — a 4-year-old black lab — is just like any other dog. Girten has had Woody for about a year. He said he is always careful to keep Woody clean and his fur brushed.

Girten said he will continue visiting Eastlake.

“I like the staff there,” he said. “If I had to be at a nursing home that’s the one I would pick.”

He added, “I don’t want to bash anybody or hurt anybody, I just want to let people know that (guide) dogs can go anywhere their blind masters can go.”

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