BEREA, Ohio – A Baldwin Wallace College student who is blind said she was told to leave popular Dick’s Bakery in Berea because of her guide dog, and the incident has fueled angry comments on social media.
Sophomore Gabriella Drago, 19, keeps her guide dog Freesia by her side at all times, including during a stop for a donut with a friend at Dick’s Bakery Monday. She said bakery employee Carol Pearce, 74, told her the dog was not permitted inside, even after Gabriella explained that Freesia is a service dog, and it is illegal to ban the dog from the business.
“At first, it was really shocking because that’s never really happened to me before,” Gabriella told Fox 8 News. “I wasn’t sure how to handle it… There were just a lot of emotions. It was one of those things where I wasn’t expecting that to happen.”
Gabriella’s father called Pearce to explain the situation afterward, who then called Gabriella to apologize.
“She sounded sincere in her apology. She said I didn’t look like I was blind. I’m not sure how a blind person is supposed to look, but I took it with a grain of salt,” Gabriella said, adding that she accepted the apology.
Afterward, Gabriella’s mother posted about the incident on Facebook. Jaclyn Drago’s post encouraged people to stop patronizing Dick’s Bakery and to explain the Americans with Disabilities Act laws to Pearce. It went viral and was shared nearly 10,000 times within 24 hours. Hundreds of people left comments of outrage, and many inundated Dick’s Bakery with phone calls and negative reviews online.
Pearce, visibly distraught over the incident, called it a mistake.
“I could never hurt anybody like that,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “I just want to tell you I’m so sorry; I’m so sorry. And there’s no excuse, but believe me from my heart, I’d do anything if I could make that up to [her].”
Pearce said she has worked at the bakery for 60 years and didn’t realize Gabriella was blind. She said she thought the girl was “horsing around.”
“All I saw was a big dog and said, ‘that dog can’t come in here’ because my boss would kill me, but I didn’t know she was blind,” Pearce said. “If they want me to quit, I understand. But it definitely was a mistake. It wasn’t something I did as a wisecrack, believe me, I’m not that type of person.”
The co-owners of Dick’s Bakery said Pearce’s actions are not representative of their business.
“We have a track record of understanding people with special needs, and we stand by that,” co-owner Rick Baker said.
Baker said Dick’s Bakery embraces people with special needs, including an employee and relatives.
“I’d like to extend our sincere apology to the BW student who felt unwelcome here yesterday,” Baker said. “We value our customers, and yesterday we fell short of that.”
Bakery co-owner Andy Baker told Fox 8 News that Pearce “will be retiring.” A statement posted on Facebook from the bakery Tuesday afternoon said she was terminated.
Afterward, the Drago family asked the public to give Dick’s Bakery another chance and to stop calling the bakery and writing negative reviews. Gabriella’s father, Rob Drago, said the incident seemed to be a case of lack of education versus intolerance. They also asked that Pearce not be fired.
Gabriella said she just wants businesses to understand that, under ADA, service dogs must be allowed anywhere the public is. The only questions staff can ask when it’s not obvious what service an animal provides are whether the dog is a service animal required because of a disability and what work the dog been has been trained to perform.
“I definitely don’t want it to reflect incredibly negatively on them as a small business,” she said. “I just want it to be something they’re aware of, with the hope it won’t happen again with their business or any other business.”