A Georgetown University Transportation Shuttle (GUTS) bus driver asked illegal questions to a student boarding a bus with her guide dog, according to student reports.
Marissa Nissley (MSB ’24), who is legally blind and uses her guide dog, Smalls, as a mobility aid, boarded a GUTS bus from Georgetown’s bus turnaround to her home in Rosslyn at around 8 p.m. on Oct. 4. Videos Nissley posted on Instagram show her pleading with the driver to ensure her passage on the bus.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), public-serving organizations must allow service animals — dogs trained to do work or tasks for people with disabilities — in all public areas of their facilities. If it is unclear what service the animal provides, staff may only ask whether the dog is a service animal required because of a disability and what work or task the dog has been trained to perform.
Under the ADA, no employee of a public-serving organization can ask for documentation that the dog is a registered or certified service animal. Nissley’s videos show the driver asking her for a license for Smalls and asking whether Smalls was equipped with a harness labeled “guide dog” — questions the ADA prevents employees from asking.
Nissley said that she has encountered similar discrimination with rideshare drivers or potential landlords but that she takes the GUTS bus regularly and has never previously encountered this type of discrimination from a Georgetown employee.
“This has happened to me tons of times outside of campus. I get denied by Ubers, I’d say probably on a weekly basis at this point, so I’m very used to it with Ubers.” Nissley told The Hoya. “This discrimination is nothing new, but I’ve never seen this before on Georgetown’s campus.”
“I’ve taken the bus, I’d say, at least, dozens of times. I usually take it multiple times a week, and no bus driver has ever really said anything to me before,” Nissley added.
Nissley said the encounter was combative and stressful for her.
“It’s not just a friendly disagreement,” Nissley said. “It is very distressing and anxiety-inducing to be the only person on a bus full of 20 people having to stand up for your rights.”
A university spokesperson said that Georgetown aims to create an inclusive environment for students with disabilities.
“Georgetown embraces the diversity of our students, faculty, and staff and is committed to ensuring our programs and activities — including transportation services — are accessible and welcoming to all members of our community, including those with disabilities who may use service animals,” the spokesperson wrote to The Hoya.
Nissley said the incident reflects a lack of knowledge of the ADA among Georgetown employees.
“The person in the video said they have been a bus driver for 13 years, and in those 13 years that person has clearly never received comprehensive education on the ADA,” Nissley said. “How much do university employees know? And is it just this one person that’s uninformed? Or is it like, other people have made assumptions about my dog and just haven’t spoken to me about it?”
“I clearly explained what was going on, and the person refused to listen to me,” Nissley added. “An apology is not enough. This should never have happened in the first place.”
Nissley reached out to Georgetown’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Affirmative Action to address the incident.
“They created a written guidance on service animals, which they sent out to all their drivers, which I think is a good place to start. But the problem is that just because you send out that guidance doesn’t mean people are going to read it and actually apply it,” Nissley said.
Nissley said she hopes that the office institutes mandatory workshops and guidance for employees.
“I know they’re also thinking about doing a workshop with drivers,” Nissley said. “So I’d be really interested to see what is the content of that workshop and if it’s mandatory because if it’s not, then there’s no point.”
The university spokesperson said the school will hold training sessions for GUTS bus drivers to ensure their familiarity with the ADA.
“We have apologized to the individual who experienced this and have scheduled retraining for employees of the Office of Transportation Management to confirm that all GUTS bus drivers understand the University’s policies permitting service animals to utilize transportation services, and to reinforce our commitment to accessibility for all passengers,” the spokesperson wrote.
Meredith Burke, a lecturer in Georgetown’s Disability Studies department who identifies as DeafDisabled, said Georgetown students and community members need to work to better understand access issues and better support disabled students on campus.
“It would be nice to have the community to listen to those who experience inaccessibility on a daily basis, that is how we all learn. We need to step up when you see or hear inaccessibility happening,” Burke wrote to The Hoya. “From my understanding, on the bus, no one stood up or stepped in to support them. This is how you prevent this from happening again.”
“Go to workshops and events, take Disability Studies courses, learn from disabled people from the community, and ask questions,” Burke added.
Nissley said access to university services and public facilities for disabled students is vital.
“Access is something that’s not optional. No disabled students should have to argue to simply get a ride on a bus, whether they have a dog, a wheelchair, cane, whatnot,” Nissley said. “I think it’s very important that students be able to rely on the university transportation that they’re essentially paying for.”