Two women stand in a park with their guide dogs.
Milena Khazanavicius and Kim Cusack with their guide dogs, Georgia and Louis. Photo: Contributed

Three Nova Scotian women who are blind say they face questioning and have been denied entry to restaurants and stores because they use guide dogs. 

On Thursday, Sept. 15, Milena Khazanavicius and Kim Cusack were waiting for a table at Modern Orchid, a restaurant in Dartmouth Crossing, when they say the server told them they couldn’t dine in because of their guide dogs. Khazanavicius has a German Shepherd named Louis that was trained at The Seeing Eye Inc., a guide dog school in Morristown, New Jersey, while Cusack’s dog is a Black Labrador named Georgia that was trained at Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind in Manotick, ONT. 

Cusack was visiting the city from Cape Breton and wanted to check out all her favourite spots, including the Modern Orchid. Khazanavicius and Cusack were joined on the outing by Cusack’s cousin, who is sighted. Cusack said they didn’t get far past the door when an employee stopped them and said no dogs were permitted inside.

“It was clear she knew nothing related to the law about guide dogs,” Cusack said. “I do have a bit of vision, so I could see she kept shaking her head to say, ‘No, you can’t come in here.’”

Khazanavicius, meanwhile, pointed to her own prosthetic eyes, and told the server she is blind. 

“At this point, my voice is a little raised because to me, with all the barriers we face on a daily basis, I just wanted to go in and eat with a friend of mine because she liked to order from here,” Khazanavicius said, adding she and Cusack asked to speak with the manager. 

Cusack said she feels there may have been a language barrier, because she kept explaining it was the law that she and Khazanavicius be allowed inside the restaurant. The staff person called a manager, who Cusack said also denied them entry to the restaurant.  

“I said, again, it’s the law, and if you don’t let us in, I’m going to have to call police,” Cusack said.  

Cusack and Khazanavicius said a customer in the restaurant told them there was no such law about guide dogs and they should just go eat somewhere else. 

“I couldn’t believe it,” Cusack said. “I am in a restaurant with two people who don’t know the law? It was shocking to me.” 

They said the patron interrupted again.

“I said, ‘Let me tell you something. This is a federal and provincial law,” Khazanavicius said she told the customer. “I worked on the [provincial] legislation.”

Khazanavicius said the customer repeated that no such law existed.

Legislation protects users of guide dogs, service dogs

The use of guide dogs is protected under the Blind Person’s Rights Act. But the use of guide dogs is also protected under more recent legislation called Service Dog Act. Besides guide dogs, that legislation protects the users of services dogs, which are trained to work with and assist people who have PTSD, epilepsy, severe diabetes, someone who uses a wheelchair, or someone who is deaf or hard of hearing. Emotional support or comfort dogs aren’t covered under either pieces of legislation.

And there seems to be some confusion, too, over the identification of a guide dog versus a service dog. Khazanavicius said she’s often asked why her dog isn’t wearing a vest. She said that happened this past summer at a few restaurants she visited in Wolfville.

While service dogs wear a vest to let others know they’re doing a task, guide dogs aren’t required to wear a vest. They do wear a u-shaped harness with a handle the user holds onto. A vest would interfere with the communication between a user and their dog.

Related: One woman’s fight to make Halifax accessible

Khazanavicius, who has been using guide dogs for 21 years, said the situation has gotten worse over the last five years. She said the rule from March 2021 that permitted dogs to be on restaurant patios may have caused even more confusion. She said disability groups weren’t consulted on that issue. She said she’s often told to go on the patios of restaurants where other dogs are permitted. Under the law, users with guide dogs are permitted anywhere in a restaurant.

“I blame the province because when the service dog legislation came in, they promised education,” Khazanavicius  said. “They did about three weeks of education and that’s it. That’s why people are confused.” 

Cusack said while groups like CNIB do a good job of spreading the word – September is national guide dog awareness month – most of the awareness campaigns are on social media, which not everyone uses.  

“I feel there needs to be more focus on television, radio, or something with a broader audience,” Cusack said. “We can’t rely on social media.” 

Cusack said frontline service workers need to be trained on guide dogs and the law.

“And they need to be aware of the consequences if they deny access,” Cusack said. Those consequences include a fine from $1,000 to $5,000.

‘I never expected to be denied’

Cusack and Khazanavicius left the Modern Orchid, called the non-emergency line of Halifax Regional Police, and filed a report. A Halifax Regional Police officer arrived about 30 minutes later, and Cusack said he was aware of the law about guide dogs. Cusack said the officer called the manager, explained the situation and the law. She said she believes the manager told the officer they were unaware of the law, and they would have a meeting with staff to talk about it. 

“I never expected to be denied because we were in the city, first of all, and the thought never crossed my mind that we’d be denied access,” Cusack said.  

Cusack said she also contacted the administration for Dartmouth Crossing and she said they responded immediately, telling her they would send along a reminder to all stores and restaurants about the law. She also contacted the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia (RANS), who said they would contact the restaurant and explain the law.

The Halifax Examiner reached out to the owners of the Modern Orchid via email and received a call from someone who said they were calling on behalf of the owners. That person told the Examiner to contact Halifax Regional Police about the incident. Const. John McLeod with Halifax Regional Police, responded with this email: 

The Nova Scotia’s Blind Persons’ Rights Act protects the rights of people who are blind and are accompanied by a guide dog as defined within the act. We encourage anyone who has encountered discrimination in violation of the act to file a report with police so that the matter can be fully investigated.

With respect to the specific incident you referenced, I can say that officers conducted an investigation and the matter was resolved without charges.

A woman in a white top, black pants, and pink sneakers, sits on a bench alongside a waterfront area. In front of her sits a Black Labrador guide dog wearing a harness.
Stephanie Berry and her guide dog, Neela. Photo: Contributed

Stephanie Berry, a social worker in Halifax, is blind and has a guide dog named Neela, a three-year-old Black Labrador that was trained at Guide Dogs for the Blind in the US. Like Khazanavicius and Cusack, Berry said she’s had staff at restaurants, stores, and elsewhere question her about Neela before allowing her to enter.  

“In Halifax, the vast majority of places I go generally know the law,” Berry said. “There have been some places in the last year, in particular, which have given me a few surprises since I got Neela. I’ve taken her to gyms, I’ve taken her into hospitals for appointments. We go everywhere: planes, trains, buses.”  

Berry recalls a situation at McDonald’s on Kempt Road when she and her partner were placing their their order on a kiosk, a staff person came over to say the restaurant doesn’t allow dogs. Berry and her partner explained Neela was a guide dog, but Berry said the staff member told them the restaurant didn’t allow guide dogs inside either. 

“This man behind me ended up standing up for me, and was like, ‘that’s a guide dog,’” Berry said. “She kind of retreated a little bit. The customer said you should know [guide dogs] are allowed in your store.” 

“It probably wasn’t part of her training. Obviously, ignorance of the law isn’t an excuse in most cases. She did end up apologizing. I think that made a big difference. It’s one of those things where you’re reminded, ‘Oh, I’m different,’ so, I might not be wanted or accommodated in all places.” 

All three women say they have been asked questions about their dogs at various locations.

Cusack said she’d been questioned about Georgia, who wears an ID tag, in Costco and Walmart.  

“They seem not to understand the law,” Cusack said. “They both have greeters at the door, so you can’t get past those people if they don’t want you to get past.” 

Cusack said she asks to speak to a manager on duty and she share the information with them. She said managers usually know the law

The Examiner asked Walmart Canada about their training around guide dogs, but didn’t receive a response as of publication time. Costco said they do train staff around accessibility and the law. They passed along the phone number of a warehouse manager Cusack can contact when she’s questioned about bringing Georgia into the store.

Related: One woman’s fight to make Halifax accessible

Khazanavicius said she’s often “harassed” by staff at IKEA who want to see her ID card, which she shows them. She said staff also want to see Louis’s chain. 

Christine Krochak, a spokesperson with Ikea Group, emailed a statement that said, in part:

We follow provincial accessibility guidelines and co-workers complete mandatory accessibility training annually as well. We are proud to have hosted Paws Fur Thought and other service animal trainers to conduct training at IKEA Halifax in the past.

We welcome customers shopping with service dogs. Greeters do not deny entry to our stores if identifiers such as a service vest are present, however, service animals without identifiers are not permitted access to the IKEA restaurant in keeping with food service guidelines. At IKEA Halifax, we are a pet-friendly environment and appreciate how much pets bring home to life.

Khazanavicius said she was also challenged by two shuttle companies that take passengers to Cape Breton when she mentioned she’d be traveling with her guide dog. She was told dogs weren’t allowed on the shuttles because other passengers or the driver might have allergies. Khazanavicius again explained the law and the fines. She ultimately booked and took that trip, and said the driver was very accommodating with her and Louis. 

“Up until the day they picked me up, I was a nervous wreck,” Khazanavicius said. “How many people have been denied? I don’t know.” 

Berry said she was denied access to the Warehouse Market on Isleville Street in Halifax during her first visit there last winter. She said she was told she wasn’t allowed to bring Neela inside, but she could tie her outside instead. Berry said she told the staff person Neela was a guide dog and she wouldn’t tie her outside, but she said she was again told Neela wasn’t allowed in because of animals in the store. After some discussion, the staff person finally allowed Berry and Neela inside. 

“I don’t think it was accurate for that place at all because they don’t have living animals. It’s like a grocery store,” Berry said. “A lot of times I just insisted and even though it’s uncomfortable, I still went there. It’s one thing if they say the dog isn’t allowed in here and then people look down and notice she’s a guide dog. I think a lot of the time people overlook it because there are a lot of people who try to bring their pets into place. I don’t think that was the case in either of these [situations]. I think they could clearly see she had a harness on.”

After that incident, Berry said she was initially hesitant to go back to that market again.  

“I went there a couple of weeks ago and I wondered if it was going to happen again,” she said. “It never did, but it’s one of those things you never forget. Once it happens to you, you don’t forget about it.” 

The Examiner left a message on the phone line of the Warehouse Market on Monday, but hasn’t heard back.

And still another incident happened at the Bayers Lake location of Access Nova Scotia in Bayers Lake. Berry said as she, her partner, and Neela walked in, a man working at the main desk in the front saw them and said, “No dogs allowed.” 

Berry said she explained that Neela is a guide dog, but the man said only service dogs are allowed. Berry said she told the man that guide dogs are a type of service dog, but the man pointed out that Neela wasn’t wearing a blue tag.  

Berry said she never heard of the blue tag, but she does carry official ID for Neela, who also wears tags.  

“I have no knowledge of this blue tag that he thought Neela should have,” Berry said. “We weren’t kicked out. We just went about our business. 

The Examiner contacted the Department of Service Nova Scotia and Internal Services, and spokesperson Blaise Theriault emailed this response:

I am sorry to hear about the experience you have shared. It’s important for all of our clients to Access Centres to feel welcome. Service animals are allowed in our Offices. There is a sign posted in our offices so all of our clients are aware should they see a guide dog present. The topic of guide dogs and emotional support animals is discussed often during team meetings with staff.  We welcome all feedback on our client services as providing service excellence is always our priority.

A woman dressed in a black top, black pants, a black headwrap, and pink sneakers, walks down a gravel path with a Black Labrador dog that is wearing a harness.
Stephanie Berry with her guide dog, Neela. Photo: Contributed

Berry said she’s questioned elsewhere, too, including by taxi drivers. And she says she now has to fill in more paperwork than she’s ever had to bring Neela on a plane. She’s said she’s heard stories about people with guide dogs being denied access to resorts outside the city.  

Berry said all of these experiences are disheartening. 

“It makes me sad. I just almost want to cry,” Berry said. “This person doesn’t think I belong in their store, and they don’t realize how special these dogs are and how much they do. Not only are they worth a lot of money, but they’re just priceless in terms of the job that they do. She helps protect me. It’s like a mobility aid, except better. She can give kisses and is soft and cuddly. It’s like someone’s wheelchair where it’s sometimes you’re made to feel it’s in the way or you’re a burden.” 

‘We need allies who can help us’

Berry said she’d like to see the training as part of programs for employees, children, and newcomers to Canada. She’d also like to see more enforcement. 

“If someone is legitimately discriminated against that could be difficult to prove, but if you’re able to prove it, then there are fines,” Berry said. “I think some of that should happen.”

Berry said some people who use guide dogs are too fearful to advocate for themselves.

“They’re just not comfortable doing it because they’re the minority,” Berry said. “It’s hard to do it and it’s a lot of work. You have to pick your battles sometimes because you can’t take on everything.”

Khazanavicius said she doesn’t want to single out any company, but wants to make sure staff are trained about guide dogs.

“This is law. It has been the law for a very long time. We have the human right. And educate of all owners of public-serving businesses, educate your staff.”

Cusack, meanwhile, is back at home in Cape Breton. She said all of these incidents make her feel very anxious and she’s exhausted by the constant education of others about guide dogs.

“We need some allies who can help us,” Cusack said. “It gets exhausting when we’re out there fighting for our rights. We need sighted people out there to be our allies in this situation. It’s frustrating, for sure.” 

“I guarantee you the next time Georgia and I are out, I will have that anxiety and I’m going to have a script prepared in my head. When I get challenged at the door, this is what I’m going to say. It’s unnecessary anxiety just to go out to eat.” 

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Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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