HUMBOLDT PARK — Roommates Sidney Buchanan and Kathryn Centorcelli were looking forward to last weekend’s Sangria Festival all summer. The two bought tickets back in June, thinking it’d be a fun and safe activity to enjoy.
“We haven’t been able to go to anything like this since the start of COVID. This was something that was small, had space. It felt safe,” Buchanan said.
But their plans were quashed when Buchanan was denied entry for bringing her marked service dog. In what could be a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the fest’s security guards told Buchanan dogs weren’t allowed under any circumstances, forcing her and Centorcelli to leave.
The fest’s organizers said they “deeply apologize for the unfortunate incident and are working on educating and training everyone involved.” But Buchanan and Centorcelli said they want to raise awareness about the incident to prevent other people with disabilities from being unfairly or illegally blocked from participating in public events.
“It’s very disheartening to have this access issue in a city that I love so much, just trying to continue to live my life and be a normal human being,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan is a 23-year-old teacher who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. She said she was struggling to manage her mental illness until she got Woofy, a 2-year-old black Labrador retriever, earlier this year. Woofy is classified as a psychiatric service dog and is trained to prevent Buchanan from having panic attacks and to help during an episode.
According to a definition at ada.gov, if a dog has been trained to sense an anxiety attack is about to happen and can take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, it qualifies as a service animal.
“I have medical equipment. It’s not the same as an oxygen tank or crutches. … I have equipment that’s specifically to assist me,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan said her condition has greatly improved since she got Woofy. She said she brings the dog everywhere, from bars to the grocery store, and rarely has issues. Sometimes staffers at those places ask basic questions allowed by the Americans With Disabilities Act, but that’s the extent of the questioning, she said.
Sangria Festival was the first major roadblock Buchanan has experienced since getting Woofy. Held Saturday and Sunday on Humboldt Park’s Division Street, the festival featured sangria tastings, live music, vendors and Latin American food. Buchanan and Centorcelli had tickets for Sunday.
Buchanan said Woofy was wearing a service vest and in control when they walked up to the fest’s security guard to show their tickets, but the guard refused to let them enter with Woofy, even after she explained he was a service dog.
Buchanan asked to speak to a manager, who also denied them entry after a lot of back and forth, she said. The manager told Buchanan the festival, now in its sixth year, has a no pets policy. She said dogs could be dangerous to people drinking alcohol and tattoo artists working the fest, Buchanan said.
But according to the Americans With Disabilities Act, service dogs are not pets. Privately owned businesses are prohibited from discriminating against people with service dogs under the law.
The fest’s organizers didn’t answer questions about why the policy was created or whether it had been in place for six years, but they said in an email, “This is the first year of an occurrence of this nature.”
“We strive to make our event inclusive and safety is also a big concern for all patrons and vendors in a festival environment,” the organizers said.
For about an hour and a half, Buchanan tried to convince the guards to let them into the festival and even got Woofy’s trainer on the phone, but the guards wouldn’t budge, so they gave up and walked home, she said.
Buchanan said at first she felt guilty Woofy was the reason she and Centorcelli couldn’t enjoy the event they had planned. Then, that guilt turned into anger at the security guards for refusing to follow the law. Now, she said, she feels disheartened.
The festival is over and their tickets have been refunded, but the rejection still stings, she said.
“At the end of the day, people who have disabilities are still people,” she said. “They still deserve to go to events, go to dinner, listen to live music. Their involvement in society shouldn’t be squashed and pushed down because of access issues, whether it be a lack of a wheelchair ramp or denial of access due to a service dog.”
Buchanan and Centorcelli said they’re bringing attention to the incident in hopes other event organizers will take note and treat people with service dogs fairly and in accordance with the law. After the incident, the fest’s organizers said they’re planning to “work with all necessary organizations to have a proper policy in place for the future.”
“The most important thing is to educate your staff, educate yourself and do better,” Buchanan said.
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