Amanda works with her dog Ava at Freedom Service Dogs in Englewood, CO. (NREL/Dennis Schroeder)

How nonviolent communication can help people with disabilities respond to discrimination

Nonviolent communication techniques offer a way to educate people while preserving the dignity of those with disabilities.
Amanda works with her dog Ava at Freedom Service Dogs in Englewood, CO. (NREL/Dennis Schroeder)

“What’s your problem?” While this phrase often escalates aggression in a conversation, I suggest that it is a great question to use to discover ways in which we can apply active nonviolence techniques that contribute to a culture of nonviolence. When we better understand the problems that people in our community are facing, we are better equipped to find practical applications of nonviolent techniques that can resolve these issues. Learning nonviolent techniques and using them in our everyday lives not only helps to resolve issues, but it has a wonderful ripple effect. Our actions also teach others how to interact nonviolently, which serves to decrease the amount of aggression in our communities. 

We talked about the ways we respond to violence: avoidance, accommodation, and counter violence. 

As an example of this concept, I would like to share an opportunity that I had to teach practical applications of active nonviolence in my own community. I was recently contacted by a friend who works for an organization that trains service animals. They pair the animals with clients, and provide ongoing support. She asked me if I might consider presenting a nonviolence workshop to a group of her organization’s clients.

A week before the workshop, I was invited to sit in on a Zoom discussion in which clients discussed these interactions. I was shocked to learn that they are often the victims of harassment and rejection. They are frequently approached and asked rude, inappropriate questions. They are sometimes followed by strangers, and people ignore their repeated requests not to distract their service animal. Sadly, they are often refused entry into places of business despite laws that prohibit this type of discrimination. I was a bit overwhelmed by all of these accounts, to say the least, but it helped me to better understand the situations that they face. It also gave me valuable information that I needed to think through the type of training that would best serve their particular needs.

During our workshop the following Saturday morning, we talked about the ways we respond to violence — the scripts that we’ve learned throughout our lives: avoidance, accommodation and counter violence. After some discussion, we reviewed the following scenario: Your family suggests that you all go out together to a nice Italian restaurant, but you have heard that the owner and staff are known for turning away people with service animals. If you’d rather not make a scene, you could avoid violence by side-stepping the situation altogether. “No,” you might say to your family, “I’ve heard that the food there is lousy! Let’s go somewhere else.” 

Or, knowing that they really want to go to this particular restaurant, you may reluctantly agree to go anyway and hope for the best. When you arrive, however, the owner takes one look at your dog, and says, “No, you can’t eat here. I can’t have dogs in my dining area.” Being embarrassed by this negative attention placed on you and your family, you could accomodate this violence by quietly leaving without even discussing the situation.

Or, when refused entry by the restaurant owner, you might choose to use counter violence. He has embarrassed you, so you yell at him to belittle him in front of his customers. You tell him that he is rude, that his food really is lousy, and you are going to slap him with a discrimination lawsuit. You make sure that everyone in the restaurant has heard the interaction. 

Nonviolent communication is effective because it gets at the root of the problem: fighting discrimination by educating the public about the challenges people with service animals face every day.

After sharing such stories and acting them out, we discussed a better way of reacting to violence rather than resorting to avoidance, accommodation, or counter violence: the way of active nonviolence. So, here is the situation again: The owner has refused to serve you, so you employ nonviolent communications techniques. CLARA is an acronym for an effective nonviolent communication technique: (1) center yourself, (2) learn your truth, (3) articulate your truth, (4) receive the truth of the other, and (5) anchor and accomplish.

You must first center yourself, and learn your truth. You breathe in deeply, realizing that you are very upset. You remember all of the times that you’ve been met with discrimination like this before, and all that anger is rising up quickly in your thoughts. But you remind yourself that although those things did happen in the past, this confrontation is happening in this present moment. This present moment is a new opportunity to resolve this ongoing conflict.

You’ve been rehearsing this new script over and over in your mind in order to be ready for this particular situation, so you take another cleansing breath, then you speak your truth calmly and clearly: “Sir, I have heard that this is the best Italian restaurant in the county, and I really want to dine here with my family. When you refuse me without any consideration, it makes me feel disrespected and quite sad — not only for myself, but also for my family. The Americans with Disabilities Act states that you must allow patrons accompanied with service animals in your restaurant as long as the animal is housebroken and under control. I assure you that my dog is well-trained, housebroken and will not disturb any customers or staff. We would like to have dinner here tonight. If there is any problem, you have my word that we will leave immediately.”

After having spoken your truth, it is now time to carefully listen to the owner’s truth without interruption. The owner replies rather bluntly, “Well, I have nothing against you people, but I just don’t like dogs, and I don’t want them in my restaurant!” You accept his truth, putting aside the “you people” part of his comment. He has made it very clear that he doesn’t like dogs. 

How does this piece of information match up with your truth? Now is the time to achieve a resolution. You say, “Sir, I do not know your reasons for not liking dogs, but I respect that. As I said, my dog is well-trained and house-broken. She does not approach other people. Her job is to protect and assist me. If there is any problem at all with her behavior, I give you my word that we will leave immediately.” 

In the best-case scenario, the owner might say, “Well, alright, but the last dog we had in here made a terrible mess and other customers were complaining! If your dog causes one bit of trouble, I am going to have to ask you to leave.” The worst-case scenario is that he again refuses to serve you, “No, no! You’re not bringing that dog in here. Dogs can’t be trusted no matter how well-trained they are!” In this case, when no resolution can be found, you calmly and clearly state the boundaries moving forward. “Sir, I am very sorry that we cannot come to an agreement. However, we both know that discrimination is illegal. I have no choice but to file a complaint with the ADA.”

Our group worked on another situation they often face: You have mustered all of your energy to make a quick trip to the pharmacy. When you enter the store, another customer comes up to you and says, “Aww! Such a cute little doggie. Are you training him?” You take a breath, and speak calmly and truthfully, “No ma’am, this is my service dog, and he is working. Please don’t distract him. His job is to take care of me.” She persists, “But he’s just so darn cute! Aww, I can’t help myself! Besides, you don’t look like you have a disability. What’s wrong with you, anyway?” 

Employing nonviolent communication techniques, you reply, “I have asked you not to distract him and when you refuse my wishes it causes me worry and anxiety. Shopping is challenging for me, and I need to get what I came for and check out quickly. Please, ma’am, perhaps another day we can talk.” If the other customer persists and chooses not to be empathetic, state your boundary: “I can tell you love dogs, but I’ve explained my situation to you. If you continue to follow me and distract my dog, I will speak to the store manager.”

These kinds of interactions using nonviolent communication are effective because they get at the root of the problem: They fight discrimination by educating the public about the challenges people with service animals face every day, and they model and promote good communication. Every day, each of us can do our part to create a culture of nonviolence.  

In building nonviolent communities, it is very appropriate to ask: “What’s your problem?”  When we better understand the challenges that people face in our communities, we can work together to find practical ways we can use active nonviolence to solve particular challenges. The clients who attended my workshop were excited to put these techniques into practice, and the organization has asked me to develop training videos for new clients.

I would like to express my gratitude to Veronica Pelicaric, Rivera Sun, and Pace e Bene for training me to teach nonviolence. 

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.