The Blind Man’s French Dog Problem

It’s not really about the dog. Or being French. Or blind.

By Adam Linn

Mr. Linn is writer who travels with a Seeing Eye dog.

Last summer my wife, Juju, was invited to attend a conference in Paris, and she asked me to come along. I’d always wanted to visit Paris, so of course I said yes. But before I could book my ticket, I needed to do some research. I’m blind, and I use a Seeing Eye dog — a German shepherd named Nadia — to help me get around.

First, I needed to find out where the French stood on guide dogs. This wasn’t an unreasonable concern. In New York, where the law clearly states guide dogs can accompany their owners everywhere, I frequently run into trouble — in restaurants, cabs, parks, even hospitals. I didn’t want to go to Paris on vacation only to have the same fights over my guide dog I could have at home.

My research turned up some good news. It said that the French have some of the strongest service animal laws in the world, and more important, these laws are rigorously enforced — any form of discrimination is strictly forbidden. I was ecstatic. Not only was I going to experience a city that I’d always wanted to visit, but I also was now sure that my guide dog and I would be welcomed with open arms.

The problems began the moment we arrived in Paris. The representative from the apartment rental company took one look at Nadia and me and demanded an extra 700 euros security deposit, along with an additional 500 euros for a mysterious “deep-clean fee.” I felt like I’d been smacked in the face. And it really stung after the warm welcome I’d imagined.

So much for discrimination being strictly forbidden. Juju and I were furious, but what could we do? We’d never find another apartment at the height of the tourist season. We were stuck. So that afternoon, I was on the Métro traveling to a gritty neighborhood in the 20th Arrondissement in search of the office of the local guide dog federation to find out if anyone there could help me resolve my problem with the rental company. When I arrived, I was met by the director, a small lively man, who shook my hand vigorously before leading me into his cluttered office. He listened sympathetically while I described my dispute with the rental company. When I finished, he sighed heavily and drummed his fingers on the desktop.

“You are absolutely correct, Mr. Linn,” he said, “This is unquestionably a violation of French law. But your situation is a bit … er … tricky.”

“Why tricky?” I asked. “The law clearly states you can’t charge a blind person with a guide dog more than you charge everyone else.”

“That’s exactly right,” he said. “But the law doesn’t apply to you.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because French law only applies to French dogs.”

French dogs? Was this guy pulling my leg? What the hell was a “French dog?” I pictured a bored-looking bulldog sitting at an outdoor cafe, a beret on his head, a cigarette in one paw, a glass of wine in the other.

Then the director interrupted my daydream. “But,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper, “there is one thing I can do for you.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I will make you a false identification card. Then, while you are in France, you and Nadia will be French, and you will enjoy all the rights of a French guide dog handler. Restaurants, taxis, museums, you name it. Simple, no?”

Clearly I was missing something. Making a fake ID for a dog didn’t strike me as particularly simple. But just then the director snapped a photo of Nadia and me, and began tapping away at his computer.

I sat there stunned, a frozen grin on my face, while wave after wave of déjà vu crashed over me. I felt a familiar anger rising in my chest. I wanted to pound my fist on the director’s desk. I was angry because being blind is rarely my problem; my biggest frustrations stem from the fact that there is always some person in a position of power telling me that I’m not quite right.

Suddenly I was back in a Brooklyn courtroom for a custody hearing when a judge told me I couldn’t see my 1-year-old daughter without my mother being present “because no judge in their right mind would leave a baby alone with a blind man.” This despite the fact the judge knew I’d been my daughter’s principal care giver from the time she was born.

Then there was the immigration hearing to determine whether Juju would receive a green card. While a stone-faced immigration officer pored over pictures of our wedding, I sat there sweating through the back of my pants, obsessing over our lawyer’s final words before we went into the hearing: Juju had a great chance of receiving her green card — she was a doctor, we had married for love, we were the right age and had similar backgrounds. The only “problem” with our application was my blindness, which was sure to send up red flags.

I could have remembered countless other examples of discrimination I’d experienced over the years, but at that moment, the director tapped me on the shoulder and handed me my new identity card.

“Voilà,” he said.

Back at the apartment, I made a few jokes about my new French identity, but my heart wasn’t in it. We spent the rest of the week going to museums and restaurants and holding our breath. I could never just relax and enjoy myself. Having to use a fake ID all over Paris made me feel like I was “getting away with something,” which left me tired and irritable.

In the airport on the way home, I was still angry. My anger wasn’t aimed at the French or their laws. I was angry because I’d hoped to be treated with respect in France and instead I encountered the same problem I ran into in New York. The problem is a whole lot bigger than guide dogs or blindness or unexpected cleaning fees. Once again I was experiencing what it means to be a member of a minority — blind or black or poor or a newly arrived immigrant, for that matter — living day to day in constant fear that everything you have can be taken away from you, even your identity.

Adam Linn is an author living in New York. He is working on a memoir of growing up without a father, going blind and becoming a father himself.

Disability is a series of essays, art and opinion by and about people living with disabilities. The entire series can be found here.

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