Tracy Westerlund, who is blind, wants the public to know about the rights of people who use service animals. (Credit: Paul Squire)
Tracy Westerlund was with a friend last Thursday when they decided to go to a nearby restaurant in Mattituck.
They chose Tony’s Asian Fusion on Main Road.
When they arrived, a worker wouldn’t allow her in because of a no-dogs policy.
But Ms. Westerlund didn’t arrive to lunch with a small pooch under her arm; she is blind, and was accompanied by a 2-year-old service dog named Chaz, who helps her get around.
Normally, her roadblocks in life don’t come in the form of other people. (She’s been hit by cars three times.) And though a manager from Tony’s has since apologized, the negative experience prompted Ms. Westerlund to reach out of The Suffolk Times in an effort to help educate the public, especially business owners, about state and federal law concerning the use of service animals.
“I feel like it’s an injustice,” she said.
Ms. Westerlund said she tried to explain her right to bring the dog inside to the restaurant worker — later described as a temporary manager.
He didn’t want to hear it, she said.
“He kept saying, ‘No. No. You can’t be in here with that dog,’ ” Ms. Westerlund said. The man, she said, was adamant, and the two friends left.
Grace Kelly-McGovern, a spokesperson for the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, said her department doesn’t often hear reports of service dogs being denied entry. Most times, she said, it’s customers who are unfamiliar with the rules.
“Companion” animals aren’t allowed, she explained. But service animals — that is, animals that have been trained to do certain tasks like guiding the blind or helping to pick up dropped objects — must be allowed in restaurants, Ms. Kelly-McGovern said.
“They’re trained,” she said. “They know how to behave.”
Police patrol dogs are also allowed in restaurants, she said.
The requirements for service animals extend beyond restaurants, according to state and federal law. Both New York State and the federal Americans for Disabilities Act mandate that disabled people who use service animals like guide dogs be allowed entry into businesses.
Ms. Westerlund, who was raised in Peconic and now lives in Southold, suffers from a degenerative retinal disease that began to affect her sight when she was 10 years old. In college, her vision began to worsen and she was forced to leave school for rehabilitation.
Now, she says, she can sense light and darkness but the world has been cast in shadow.
Nevertheless, Ms. Westerlund is pragmatic. She is grateful that her sight hasn’t been completely lost and that she had the opportunity to see the colors of flowers when she was young.
She said she’s rarely encountered problems with businesses before and that most are accommodating or welcome her when she enters.
Years ago, a doctor’s office wouldn’t allow her to come inside with her service dog, she said. Also, in one instance a clothing store elsewhere initially refused to let her shop there with the dog.
Ms. Westerlund said she’s dismissed those annoyances in the past, preferring to let people “walk over her” rather than raise a fuss. But that mind-set has changed, she said, especially after her latest accident.
Last September, while crossing Main Road in Southold, Ms. Westerlund and her former guide dog were both struck by a car. She suffered a broken leg; her dog was traumatized and couldn’t return to her. She was forced to walk with a cane and without a furry companion by her side to keep her safe.
It took her months to recover, she said.
“For me, that was the worst time of my life,” she said. “What a guide dog does is brings a great deal of independence and freedom. A guide dog is basically your eyes.”
She got Chaz, a black Lab, late last year. A rambunctious pup, Chaz greets strangers warmly when off his harness. But once Ms. Westerlund places the harness around his neck, Chaz snaps to attention.
Ms. Westerlund said she was initially stunned that she wasn’t permitted to enter Tony’s Asian Fusion last Thursday. After being turned away, she called local police from another Chinese restaurant nearby to file a complaint.
Tony’s Asian Fusion manager Suker Jiang said Tuesday that he was away in New York City when Ms. Westerlund was denied service.
He said he’s well aware that service dogs are allowed in restaurants, but said the person who was running things that day was unfamiliar with the law.
Mr. Jiang learned about the situation last Thursday when he received a phone call saying the police were at his restaurant. Mr. Jiang said he was “sincerely sorry” about what happened.
“I’m sorry to make her feel uncomfortable and inconvenienced,” Mr. Jiang said. “I want to make an apology to her. I hope she can come in again — with her dog.”
Ms. Westerlund said the initial shock last week gave way to anger. She had been considering filing a further complaint against Tony’s Asian Fusion as a way to stand up for herself.
Now, she has mixed feelings about the situation. But Ms. Westerlund said she was encouraged to hear the manager’s message to her.
“At least he apologized and is willing to do that,” she said.
As for accepting Mr. Jiang’s invitation to return to the restaurant?
“It’s a possibility,” she said.