GDB Alumni Board member Deb Cook Lewis received her first guide dog from GDB in 1972, nearly 20 years before federal regulations would exist to protect their rights to access places of public accommodation. At the time, accessibility laws relating to guide dogs were set by individual states and Deb was fortunate to live in Washington, which was among the most inclusive in the nation at the time. Even so, she recalls an incident when police were called when she tried to bring her guide dog into a restaurant for the first time in her small hometown.
“I was in my 20s, fired up and ready to get arrested in the name of advocating for accessibility rights,” Deb recalls with a chuckle. There weren’t many guide dog users in her town at the time, so the dispatcher had a hunch it was Deb and called her dad, who was a mounted deputy at the time, to respond. The restaurant owner never made that mistake again, but it was only the first in many battles she’d have to fight to gain equal access for herself and her guide dogs over the next 40+ years.
Deb made her career advocating for access and independence for people with disabilities. Working with the State of Washington Department of Services for the Blind, she pioneered programs and services to help improve access innovation across public and private sectors. She knows that education and awareness around the lack of accessibility are essential to creative effective changes in any industry.
“I like to tell people that disabled is the only minority group that you can join at any time. Once they realize that lack of accessibility is not an issue that affects others, but could impact their lives or the lives of their loved ones, they begin to see it as the civil rights issue that it truly is.”
Since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, Deb has noticed a significant difference in general awareness and education when it comes to accessibility in many aspects of our society. Still, she notes, as our world changes and evolves, so must the standards of accessibility to which we hold businesses accountable.
“We’ve all seen our lives drastically altered in the last six months,” Deb notes, as it relates to the current coronavirus pandemic. “For a person who is disabled who was already fighting to have equal access to essential services like transportation or medical services, we’re also having to navigate an entirely new challenge of virtual accessibility. Legislation will need to catch up and enforcement will have to step up to eliminate some of these barriers.”
Deb was recently interviewed about the 30th Anniversary of the ADA. Watch her interview here.
To learn more about guide dog accessibility laws and the ADA, visit our Access & Etiquette page.