On D.C.'s Streets, Blind Injustice

Jim Dickson, with his 3-year-old black Lab, Pearson, says he and others with guide dogs or wheelchairs often have trouble getting cabdrivers to stop for them in the District.
Jim Dickson, with his 3-year-old black Lab, Pearson, says he and others with guide dogs or wheelchairs often have trouble getting cabdrivers to stop for them in the District. (By John Kelly -- The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Thursday, December 4, 2008

Jim Dickson had the feeling empty cabs were zipping past him without stopping as he stood at 17th and L streets NW the week before last, his hand raised for a taxi. He didn't know for sure, though. Jim is blind. Standing next to him was his 3-year-old black Lab guide dog, Pearson.

I watched for a few minutes as taxis -- their rooftop lights lighted, their back seats vacant -- ignored Jim and Pearson, then I walked up and suggested he might have better luck at the Mayflower Hotel's cabstand.

"This is not a unique experience to me," Jim said. "People with guide dogs and people with wheelchairs complain all the time about cabs refusing to take them."

That seemed pretty cold -- refusing to stop for a disabled person? -- but then we got to the Mayflower. There were no cabs at that moment, but National Cab No. 64 soon pulled up and disgorged a passenger. The hotel doorman held the door for Jim and Pearson, but when the cabdriver saw them, he started shouting. The cab rolled forward a few inches, the door still open. Then the driver got out and started swearing at the doorman. After the door was shut, he got back behind the wheel and drove off.

The doorman was as disgusted as I was. Jim took the next cab.

A few days later, I spoke with Jim, who is vice president of government affairs for the American Association of People with Disabilities. Lots of drivers don't like dogs and won't stop, he said. "The only place it doesn't happen is up on Capitol Hill," said Jim, 62. "I usually get a Capitol policeman to flag the cab for me."

Mario Bonds, a 21-year-old student from Bowie who travels with his black Lab, Sydney, said the same thing. He often needs a cab at the New Carrollton Metro station. "I've felt quite stupid standing there for a long time, when a regular sighted person says, 'There's plenty of cabs here. I don't know what these guys are doing.' "

George Merriweather said it was so hard to get a cab for him and his standard poodle guide dog, Gambit, that he stopped coming into the District from Olney for doctor's appointments. "They're hard on blind people," said George, 61. "Especially if you've got a dog, you don't get in a cab."

Why wouldn't a cabdriver stop for a blind person with a dog? Some might be concerned that dogs would make the vehicle dirty, though Jim makes Pearson sit on the floor and on wet days carries paper towels to wipe the seat. Some might be allergic, though Jim said that if so, they're supposed to have a doctor's letter on file. Jim and Mario said some drivers have told them it's against their religion to have a dog in the car. Could that be true?

Some Muslims believe that dogs are unclean, said Abdullahi An-Na'im, a professor at Emory University who specializes in Islamic law, but this is more a cultural notion than a religious one. He said nothing in the Koran stipulates that dogs must be avoided. What's more, two Islamic tenets would override any reluctance to take a guide dog: the imperative of being helpful to someone in need, and what's known as darura, or necessity. If you're blind and need a dog, darura means that's okay. The same goes when you're a taxi driver who encounters blind passengers.

Said the professor: "I don't think that's acceptable for a Muslim" not to take a service animal in his cab.

The Big Apple solved this problem nine years ago with an awareness campaign and an undercover sting operation, said Allan Fromberg of New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission. Plainclothes officers and guide dogs were used to catch drivers who wouldn't stop.

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