Easton, an Air Force veteran who served from 2001-2005, lost most of his vision due to an eye disease. Chestnut is Easton's guide dog. With his faithful companion by his side, Easton is able to get around his neighborhood in San Luis Obispo. Chestnut also guides Easton from Central California to the VA Hospital in San Francisco's Outer Richmond District, where he receives medical treatment for his eyes.
But recently, the VA Hospital delivered some not-so-welcoming news, telling Easton that he could no longer bring Chestnut into the eye exam room at the hospital.
"I was told by the Patient Advocate Office as well as the eye clinic that the only option was to have a family member or a friend watch my dog for me during my exam," Easton told SF Weekly. "I was told if that wan't an option that I was to call Animal Control and have them take my guide dog to the shelter at my own expense just for the short duration of my appointment."
Easton says that he was advised to "leave his dog in the car."
Obvious questions arose, such as: leave Chestnut in what car? A blind person can't legally drive. As a person who lives on disability insurance Easton can hardly afford boarding fees. And besides, how would Easton get from the pound—which is in the Mission—to the VA Hospital in the Outer Richmond without his guide dog?
"I depend on the VA for treatment," Easton said. "Putting my dog in a shelter is ridiculous. It's dangerous for me as well as my dog."
"This is false," Easton claims. "Gown and scrub down procedures are not taking place in the exam rooms." He also reports incidents of food in the exam rooms.
SF Weekly reached out to Judi Cheary, Director of Public Affairs for the VA Hospital, who said the VA would handle the matter. "We will be looking into his specific concerns regarding the eye clinic," Cheary replied. "Also our overall process for accommodating service animals in our medical center. We will be reaching out to Matthew to get his feedback and input."
Bryan Bashin, Executive Director of the San Francisco chapter of the Lighthouse for the Blind, was pretty upset after hearing about Easton's situation, calling it "discriminatory."
"The Lighthouse For the Blind is dismayed that the Veteran's Administration, of all agencies, chose to discriminate against a blind person who uses a guide dog," Bashin told SF Weekly. "The local Veteran's Administration leadership should know that guide dogs are legally allowed in all places of public accommodations, which includes public spaces, hallways, and waiting rooms where members of the general public are allowed."
Apparently, the VA Hospital is exempt from the Americans With Disabilities Act.
"Because we are a federal government facility, access to VA is governed by the Rehabilitation Act," Cheary said. "ADA does not govern access or admission to VA facilities or property."
She added: "We apologize for Matthew not being allowed to keep his service animal with him in the exam room. This is not the type of experience we want our veterans to have."
As our story was being filed, Easton called us with great news. "I just got done on the phone and the VA Hospital is changing their policy," Easton said. "They were cooperative and listened. So excited!"
Cheary confirmed that the hospital had indeed altered its policy.