West St. Paul woman with guide dog wants to be treated like any other customer

MaryJeanne Hemesath, of West St. Paul, says some local businesses have confronted her about her guide dog, or asked her to leave the trained animal outside. “I’m sick and tired of it,” she says. State and federal laws say guide dogs are allowed in any public establishment, with very few exceptions. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)

MaryJeanne Hemesath didn’t find out she has a hereditary eye disease until her 30s. Now legally blind, she uses a guide dog to assist her. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)

MaryJeanne Hemesath holds the harness she puts on her service dog when the duo leaves the house. Despite the bright-yellow sign commonly associated with service animals, she’s had problems entering some West St. Paul businesses, she says. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)

MaryJeanne Hemesath has been feeling less and less welcome at West St. Paul businesses.

She’s been yelled at or shooed away by some employees and business owners when they see her guide dog. She says it’s happened both when she’s alone and with a friend while using the guide dog to navigate.

The confrontations make getting out even more of a burden.

“I’m embarrassed,” says Hemesath, 65. “If I can’t be accepted, I’d rather stay in my house.”

It’s a common experience for those with service and guide dogs, especially if they need the animals for a condition that isn’t readily identifiable.

Hemesath hasn’t always been legally blind and already struggles to adapt as her field of vision blurs and shrinks. Her vision has been gradually deteriorating since her 30s, due to retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary eye disease.

For most, eating at a restaurant, shopping for a winter coat or grabbing doughnuts are considered simple errands. Although she carries a reference book that explains the law — basically allowing service animals anywhere their human goes — having to prepare for possible conflict with every task can take its toll.

Hemesath’s come to dread the moment she steps over a business’ threshold; she already avoids some shops because of past challenges over her guide dog.  

“I don’t want to be treated like this,” she says. “I’m sick and tired of it.”

Losing sight

Hemesath didn’t know she had a degenerative eye disease until she was already experiencing night blindness.

Three decades ago, Hemesath was driving to Iowa, where she grew up on a dairy farm.

It got dark and rainy; she couldn’t see the road.

“I thought black plastic was on my windshield,” she says.

She pulled over to yank it off. She reached for it, and felt nothing but rain-soaked glass.

“There was nothing to tear off.”

Afraid to continue driving, she called the police for help.

“I didn’t know what happened to me,” she says. “I thought it was tiredness.”

Three doctors each examined her eyes, and together told her she had a genetic condition that would lead to total blindness. Gradually, dark deposits — the “pigmentosa” in the name — would replace healthy retinal cells, and she’d see less and less.

She was so shaken up at the diagnosis she couldn’t remember where she parked.

“I was just so blown away,” she says.

Hard to get around

Her driver’s license was eventually revoked.

Giving up her keys to independence was devastating. She loved to drive, and had a hard time admitting she was losing the sense crucial to getting behind the wheel.

Then living in South St. Paul, she sold her car and bought a bike, attaching a red wagon behind it to transport groceries. 

She’s used taxis, public transportation, rides from friends and an organization that connects her with volunteer drivers.

But because those options can cost time and money — and can be undependable — she prefers to get herself around, in her electric scooter and on foot. 

A curse?

She used to use just a cane to feel out curbs and barriers, but gave that up when a motorist ran over it, just missing her.

She applied to receive a guide dog, and eventually was teamed with a female Labrador from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York. She took classes to learn how to live with one.

Trying to maintain some independence, she frequently uses a motorized scooter to go out with her guide dog, often limiting her to local businesses.

As her world has grown darker, so has her outlook on her condition.

“I feel like I’ve been cursed,” she says. “None of us want to be this way.”

She worked in downtown St. Paul through the late 1990s doing clerical work. She now sells handmade crafts, such as baskets and bird houses, out of her West St. Paul home, using her college education in art.

She talks about taking painting classes, her love for baking and what life would be like if she could just have her sight — and her car — back.

“I’d be the happiest woman on earth.”

The last straw

A sort of “last straw,” Hemesath was recently told to leave her dog outside at Granny’s Donuts in West St. Paul. The store opened in 1987 and has made “Best of the Twin Cities” lists multiple times over the years.

A regular customer, although she dealt with other staffers at the shop, Hemesath was so outraged at her first encounter with the owner, she reportedly yelled at him, and later submitted a complaint to the state Department of Human Rights.

A department spokesperson said the entity isn’t allowed to offer details on specific cases, unless the complaint has been closed. 

Misunderstanding and miscommunication seemed to be factors in the heated encounter.

In an interview at his shop, Granny’s owner Xuan To, an immigrant from Vietnam, said he didn’t know it was a special dog.

“This is my mistake,” To said. “I’m very sorry.”

He said it’s also possible he wasn’t “talking clear,” when he asked Hemesath to leave her dog outside, as Hemesath apparently said things that were “not nice” and the discussion escalated quickly.

He called West St. Paul police to explain his side of the story, in case they heard about the incident. Police said the exchange hasn’t been otherwise reported.

Owner apologetic

To said the encounter weighed on him for days.

“If customers aren’t happy, we don’t have a job,” he said.

He said he felt even worse when his son, who Hemesath says has sold doughnuts to her in the past, explained the guide dog was allowed anywhere humans go.

“This is a big lesson for us,” To said while standing behind the store counter with his wife, Que Banh. “We know now.”

While Hemesath hasn’t been to the shop since, she says she may consider going back if the business is fined and informed of the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which offer certain protections related to service animals.

“I haven’t gone back,” Hemesath said.

Confrontations common

Problems related to guide and service dogs are generally more common at small businesses due to owners not being aware of the law, says Alan Peters, executive director of Can Do Canines, a New Hope-based organization which provides assistance dogs to those experiencing hearing loss, mobility challenges, autism and other conditions.

Because of past lawsuits, he says, larger businesses generally try to keep current with disability laws and educate their employees on how to serve customers with service dogs.

He says users of Can Do Canines sometimes run into problems because the dogs vary in size and breed, and the people sometimes have “invisible disabilities.”

“Some of our dogs get challenged because they look different, or some of our clients will get challenged because they look different,” he said. “I hope that a guide dog is going to make life more manageable. Sometimes it seems like a guide dog adds a complication.”

Guiding Eyes for the Blind spokesperson Michelle Brier says guide dogs aren’t used as frequently in certain parts of the world, so people who didn’t grow up in the U.S. may not be as familiar with the concept.

How to respond

Guiding Eyes advises its dog school graduates to remain calm during a confrontation, and first try reminding the business owner or employee of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Brier says.

“If this is unsuccessful, we suggest calling local law enforcement to have them come to the business and explain the law,” Brier said. “Finally, the person can file a complaint with the Department of Justice.”

Peters suggests that those with helper dogs carry around a copy of the law.

He said the public needs to become more aware of laws associated with guide dogs, as those who need them are already experiencing enough challenges.

“We should be helping people with disabilities instead of making life more difficult for them,” Peters said.

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and kroby@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.

FAQs about service animals

In 2013, the state legislature amended the Minnesota Human Rights Act to broaden the rights of individuals who use service animals in public establishments. Service animals are: dogs individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities — tasks that are directly related to the person’s disability.

Q. What can businesses ask people with service dogs?
A. Businesses may ask if an animal is a service animal or ask what tasks the animal has been trained to perform.
However, businesses may not ask:
• about the person’s disability or require documentation of the disability
• for special identification cards for the service animal
• that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform work
• about the training that the service animal received

Q. Can a business ask a person with a disability to remove his service animal?
A. No, unless:
• the dog’s out of control and the owner doesn’t take effective action to control it (for example, a dog that barks repeatedly during a movie)
• the animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others
In these limited instances, the business should give the person with the disability the option to obtain goods and services without the animal.

Q. Can a business that serves food deny entrance to an individual with a service animal?
A. No. They must allow service animals in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.

Q. Can a service animal accompany people with disabilities in every public space?
A. Entities that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities where the public is normally allowed to go.
For example, in a hospital it would be inappropriate to exclude a service animal from a patient room, a clinic, a cafeteria or an examination room. It may be appropriate to exclude a service animal from operating rooms or burn units (sterile environments).

Q. Do service animals always have to be on a leash?
A. No. While service animals are generally harnessed, leashed or tethered, the law recognizes those devices might interfere with its work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices.

Q. Are allergies or fear of dogs valid reasons to refuse service to a person who uses a service animal?
A.  No.

Source: Minnesota Department of Human Rights

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