When John Sears took his 8-year-old son, Michael, and his service dog Gigi, out to breakfast on Saturday, June 30 he never imagined the problems that would ensue.
Walking into Eddie’s Diner on Dyer Avenue, Sears was asked by Paula Azevedo, wife of Eddie, the owner of fours years, if they were picking up a to-go order, or staying to eat.
‘He said they were eating in, and I said ‘hold on’ and went into the kitchen to get Eddie,” she said.
“They have our fliers in their windows about Michael, our fundraisers, we’ve eaten in there before, we figured they knew who we were,” said John.
Eddie came out of the kitchen and asked Sears if the dog is trained like a seeing-eye dog? Sears replied, she is not a seeing-eye dog, but she is a service dog.
At this point, it is unclear exactly what happened, but both men became angered, and there was yelling and cursing.
Sears says Azevedo told him to leave the restaurant, Azevedo says Sears starting swearing at him.
A customer who was in the restaurant at the time of the altercation, Julie Cotoia, of Warwick says that Sears version is what happened.
“Eddie came out of the kitchen saw Gigi and started yelling and swearing they had to go. This went on for a bit, and we actually got so nervous and upset, we left the restaurant,” she said.
Cotoia feels especially bad for Michael and what he witnessed.
“It was nice then all heck broke loose; yelling, swearing, a child scared a father raged. I was outraged. There was no need for it at all,” she said.
Sears admitted he swore back when he was leaving, not during the argument.
“I had to be the bigger man, for my son’s sake. I was trying not to lose it,” he said. Sears also said that Azevedo followed him out of the restaurant, to the parking lot.
Azevedo has a different story. He said Sears started yelling and cursing at him when he questioned him about the dog.
According to Stephen DiMaio of the RI Department of Health, the ADA makes a clear distinction about what a service dog can do. Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability.
DiMaio also referenced the Department of Justice’s policy.
From the Department of Justice’s web site.
“Dogs can be trained to perform many important tasks to assist people with disabilities, such as providing stability for a person who has difficulty walking, picking up items for a person who uses a wheelchair, or preventing a child with autism from wandering away.
In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person's disability.
“It was a 15-second interaction. He never explained to me what the dog is all about. I have to question him it’s the law.
I took the time to research the law. I did the right thing by asking if the dog is specially trained to provide a task. He has to tell me what the dog has to do. I stood up for the law.
He is slandering my business. This is not right,” Azevedo said.
Sears posted about the incident on Eddie’s Diner Facebook page and other social media outlets.
Paula says the situation is heartbreaking.
“ I had to look at this child getting upset. The man was belligerent. 15 seconds of being yelled and screamed at. It’s a shame it has come to this. We have the footage on camera. John Sears threatened us, saying he was going to own our business,” she said.
Azevedo said they have had problems in the past with people bringing in dogs claiming they were service dogs when in fact they weren’t.
“Therapy, companion, support dogs do not qualify as a service dog. I did what the law is telling me to do. I’ve worked with Autism and Special Needs for years. I have a Spurwink Agency award I was given in 2011. This is a vicious malicious assault on my business. I have elderly, sick, handicapped people come in here all the time. I don’t discriminate,” he said.
Azevedo said he spoke with John Mullen at the Department of Health to make sure he was complying with current laws.
Azevedo admitted that he did in fact ask Sears to leave, but it was due to his language, and not because of the child or the dog.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation, we want to do right by all our customers, we want them to apologize for swearing at us, take all the bad reviews down, then it can end satisfactorily,” said Paula.
Elyse Sears, Michael’s mom is simply heartbroken over the entire experience.
“I now have a child who is terrified to bring his best friend, the source of his comfort and peace into any restaurant. I am afraid this might be steps backwards in his progress. My head says I am sure the diner didn’t mean to upset my son, but my heart is broken, not just for Michael, but for any person who might have to go through this in the future,” she said.
As for her ideas of resolution, she is practical.
“I would like to see some sort of training/education for business owners. Or, even for the state to send out notifications of changes/updates to the laws where ADA is concerned,” Elyse said.