Disabled students raise concerns about ADA violations on AU shuttle bus, campus buildings

Service dog handlers and wheelchair users cite inadequate administration response

Disabled students raise concerns about ADA violations on AU shuttle bus, campus buildings

Ben Shore is accustomed to fighting for his rights as a member of the disabled community. That is why a 2018 New Jersey civil rights law protecting service animal access to public spaces is named after his service dog, Charlie.

Shore, a senior in the Kogod School of Business, said he was a high school junior when he was first denied access on a school bus with his service dog. Now, four years later, Shore says he experienced a nearly identical situation at American University.

An AU shuttle bus driver allegedly denied him access in fall 2021 because there were “no pets allowed.” Shore said he faced discrimination three to four times during his time at AU: once when a facilities manager asked him to leave the School of International Service building. Another time he was asked to leave Kogod. Shore took a complaint to AU President Sylvia Burwell and showed up at her office on Nov. 5, 2021, where he said Burwell asked to see his service dog identification.

Although service dog handlers may carry identification cards, registration information or certificates to signal that their dog is a working animal, these items are not required for a service dog to gain access to public spaces under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA also says that staff may not require an identification card or training documentation for the dog.

“American University is committed to supporting the accessibility needs of our community,” University spokesperson Elizabeth Deal told The Eagle in an email. “In this matter, a student arrived unannounced at the President’s office. President Burwell inquired about the student’s name and relevant information so the appropriate campus office could follow up with the student. While the student stated that he had been asked by others for his service dog certification card in other situations on campus, that was not part of the conversation with President Burwell.”

Shore said the University administration was unhelpful and told him he should have brought up his concerns earlier and insisted that the staff members did not violate the ADA.

“I didn’t appreciate being gaslighted and being told it was my fault that I was denied access [to the shuttle bus],” Shore said. “But they consistently told me it was my fault … and decided to ignore all my emails.”

Deal said the University does not discriminate against individuals based on disabilities and operates in compliance with applicable nondiscrimination laws and regulations.

“Discrimination based on disability is covered by the Discrimination and Non-Title IX Sexual Misconduct Policy,” Deal said, adding that students can report alleged discrimination based on disability to the Office of Equity and Title IX.

Jessica Chaikof, a graduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences, is a service dog handler who had a similar experience on the shuttle. Chaikof said she boarded the bus March 21 and got her service dog settled underneath a bus seat when the driver asked whether the dog was a service animal and asked her to see identification. Chaikof declined as she does not have identification, and the driver asked her to exit the bus.

Chaikof said she would like AU administrators to familiarize themselves with the ADA.

“I would like to see the administration educate themselves,” Chaikof said. “There is no required certification for service animals. That is something that every single person should know: you cannot ask for certification.”

Chaikof said if University staff are concerned about service animals, they may ask two questions: “Is the animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?” 

Shore filed a complaint with the D.C. Commission on Human Rights, an agency that adjudicates private sector complaints brought under the D.C. Human Rights Act. His complaint is currently pending.

Shore said he recommends other service dog handlers at AU file complaints with the D.C. CHR. 

“People complained to the [University] administration, but it’s kind of like you’re complaining to somebody who wants to cover themselves,” Shore said. “You actually need to complain to the people who regulate this stuff.”

Chaikof said she wants other students who have service animals to feel welcome at AU and heard by the administration.

“You have a right to be on this campus,” Chaikof said. “You do not need to carry [a] certification paper.”

Fiona Murphey, a senior in CAS and wheelchair user, said she has had challenges with the AU shuttle on multiple occasions dating back to her freshman year in fall 2017. Murphey said one of her main challenges regarding the AU shuttle is the fact that the drivers are not properly trained in strapping wheelchairs to the floor of the bus, which is a safety hazard. 

“Upwards of 75 percent of the time, the driver did not know how to strap my wheelchair to the bus,” Murphey said, adding that when she tried to explain the bus equipment to the drivers, they would get upset or angry with her. 

As a result, Murphey advocated for implementing training for AU bus drivers regarding the bus equipment.

“I went around and around with ASAC for years to try to get the training approved,” Murphey said. “They said there had been more training, that they were going to take more steps, and there was little, if any, change. When [the administration doesn’t] do anything about this and they’re unresponsive to students’ repeated requests to help change this problem, it falls to students to just not have access.”

Deal told The Eagle that ASAC provides disability awareness training to shuttle drivers upon request and that the shuttle is responsible for fully training drivers.

“The drivers are also trained on the wheelchair securing system with training materials, including videos provided by the manufacturer of the restraining system on all AU shuttle buses,” Deal said.

Like Shore and Chaikof, Murphey said she has been denied access to the bus due to her disability. When Murphey and her classmates were waiting to board an AU shuttle for a field trip in fall 2017, the driver allegedly told Murphey there was not enough space for her on the bus and did not allow her access, while allowing other students to board.

Faced with what she called “consistent issues,” Murphey has not ridden an AU shuttle since the fall of 2019, instead opting to wheel herself around. In addition to the physical toll, Murphey said her decision to stop riding the AU shuttle has caused her to be late to classes, rehearsals and field trips.

“It takes longer to get everywhere,” Murphey said. “It already takes me much longer than most people to get anywhere, so I have to budget even more time. The fact I have to do that much more to get around blatant discrimination by my University was kind of infuriating.”

zbell@theeagleonline.com

Editor's Note: This story has been edited to update a statement from Deal. Deal originally told The Eagle ASAC works closely with the shuttle system but clarified after publication that the shuttle is responsible for training and ASAC works with them upon request. 

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle

Would you like to support our work? Donate here to The Eagle Innovation Fund.