DOUGLASVILLE, Ga. — A legally blind woman says she was denied service at a Douglasville restaurant because of her guide dog.
Sixty-two-year-old Terri Tidwell relies on her guide dog, Finnegan, to go everywhere. She found out when she was in her 30's that she has a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa.
"I didn’t realize when I was a kid, I had never seen in the dark and I thought that was normal," she said.
The condition prompted her to drop out of nursing school and driving lessons. As of nearly three years ago, she has used Finnegan to help her get places. He is even able to help her pick out grocery store items.
“From here I just see your face and that’s all I see," she explained. "Finnegan – unlike my cane – he keeps me from running into things, falling into things.”
Last week Terri , her husband, Jeff, and Finnegan, tried walking into the El Don Tequilas restaurant on Fairburn Road in Douglasville.
According to her, a man walked out and told them it was a health violation to have a dog at the restaurant. She then says the man went back indoors.
"Then he shut the door and you could hear it click... he locked the door," Terri recalled. "I was just shaking inside because I was so upset."
Her husband added, "We were stunned. She’s had a guide dog for three years and this is the first time this has ever happened."
The Douglasville police report reads that the man also said a customer in the restaurant "did not want the dog in the restaurant." It then reads he offered them to sit on the patio but "they did not want to."
However, Terri says she was never asked if she wanted to sit on the patio, and that she should not have to in the first place.
"No one ever asked me anything -- if I want to sit in the patio -- no one asked me what [my dog] does, no one asked me nothing," she said. "Jeff said he pointed to the patio... well, I’m legally blind. From here looking at you all I see is your whole face from this distance and that’s it."
Terri and Jeff then called police and an officer responded. According to the police report, the officer said it was a civil matter.
“She said she does not take sides and that it’s up to each business or establishment if they let you in or not," Terri said.
Georgia code 30-4-2 reads that accommodations must be made for people with visual disabilities and that they have the right to be accompanied by a guide dog.
"The biggest challenge we face in getting these laws enforced is the ignorance of law enforcement, even when even when they're told that it's a law, many times they ignore us," Gwizdala said. "Law enforcement is woefully ignorant of the laws that protect individuals who are disabled and new service dogs. Because of their ignorance, they pass that right of ignorance, so to speak, on to the establishments like restaurants, hotels, and places that serve the public."
The Douglasville Police Department tells 11Alive that the officer was unaware of this statute and it is now taking steps to educate restaurant staff as well as its officers to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
It adds that it will also be using social media to educate the community about the rights of service dog owners.
11Alive also tried getting ahold of the restaurant. A man picked up the phone saying, "Don Tequilas, can I help you?"
Reporter Paola Suro proceeded to introduce herself and ask for the manager. The man replied we had the wrong number and to never call again.
According to its Facebook reviews, staff denied entry to a disabled veteran with a service animal in 2020.
“It's not an unusual occurrence," said Gwizdala ."I probably get three to five calls like this a week. Restaurants are one of the biggest offenders when it comes to violating the civil rights of people who use service dogs, usually because they're uninformed that a service animal is not a pet and that state and federal laws protect the right of an individual who is disabled to use a service animal for independence."
As for Terri, this is the first time - and she hopes last - that she's been denied entry somewhere because of her dog.
“Somebody has to make a stance saying this is not right... something has to change," she said. "Before I got [Finnegan] I was running around with my cane and I was walking in Douglasville when we lived there. There’s no sidewalks and a car came flying by and I wound up in a ditch and tore up my meniscus in two places. This is my independence," she said, while pointing at Finnegan. "I get to do whatever I want – I can do just about everything with Finnegan."