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Former CCSO sergeant only wants accessibility, compliance

Darin Lee: Ignoring needs of the blind is the real disability

Posted 2/22/24

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – One thing is clear to Darin Lee: blindness is a disability; indifference is incapacitating. A series of strokes robbed the former Clay County Sheriff’s Office sergeant of his …

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Former CCSO sergeant only wants accessibility, compliance

Darin Lee: Ignoring needs of the blind is the real disability


Posted

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – One thing is clear to Darin Lee: blindness is a disability; indifference is incapacitating.

A series of strokes robbed the former Clay County Sheriff’s Office sergeant of his sight in 2015. He refuses to sulk or seek pity. But he remains outspoken about being left in the dark by those who don’t understand his plight.

I’m blind, and I’m disabled. That’s the only change in me,” Lee said. “OK, I’m still passionate about what I believe in. I’m still passionate about serving people. God has been very, very fortunate to me. Very fortunate. I went up to his gates (after the strokes), and he said, ‘I don’t want you. Go back.’ He’s given me the means to speak for everyone with a disability. That’s what I’ll do.

“I spent six months in the hospital after my stroke, and when I opened my eyes, I couldn’t see. The doctors said I was blind. I asked them what we were going to do about it. They said it was permanent. Being blind is my new normal.”

Lee said he’s fortunate to have a guide dog. He calls her “High Speed” because handlers can’t afford for the dog to be distracted if someone calls its name. They are inseparable; together, they have the same rights as someone with 20/20 vision.

Too many, he said, don’t understand that.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a visually impaired person with a guide dog can’t be denied access to anything available to people who can see. They can go to restaurants, shop in stores and fly commercially.

Lee said being allowed and being able aren’t always the same, especially with many confusing service dogs and support animals.

Lee calls “High Speed” his superhero.

“It is a privilege and the honor to have this animal, this machine,” he said. The bond that she and I have was instantaneous. She absolutely is a superhero. My dad is my idol. I have a beautiful wife who is my best friend. But she (“High Speed”) is absolutely fantastic.”

ADA regulations state that a service dog (or miniature horse) is an animal “individually trained to do work and perform or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” An emotional support animal is a pet.

“I can’t go to some places because emotional support animals distract or affect my dog,” Lee said. “I was at a Home Depot, or as I call it, the dog park, not long ago and someone’s dog got loose and charged at me. My dog did exactly what it was trained to do: it turned sideways in front of me to block the other dog. My wife kept the other dog off me.”

Lee talked to the company’s store and district managers but said he hadn’t gotten any relief.

Officially, Home Depot has a no-pet policy, but it’s “loosely” enforced. Most stores set their individual policies, and some stores have water dishes for the animals.

Locally, store officials referred questions about allowing pets inside the store to corporate offices.

Publix gained acclaim in the Southeast by championing strict guidelines for pets. Stores prohibit emotional support animals, and some require those with a service dog to provide training certificates.

Winn-Dixie, Lowe’s, Walmart, Costco and Target also have strict regulations that prohibit pets.

A service dog usually has a vest that identifies its role. However, those vests are available in more than 20 stores, and the buyer doesn’t have to show training or certification paperwork.

Some companies also sell “Emotional Support Animal” letters designed to convince shop owners that the pet can be in the store. It’s a trick because Florida law states it’s illegal to pass off a support animal as a service animal.

Lee said he also has problems hiring a taxi or a rideshare car because of his dog. While the ADA said that’s illegal, Lee said, “They get around it by saying they’re allergic to dogs.” He also criticized the county for not having public transportation for the disabled.

“I can get a ride to the doctor, but what if I need to go to the store or I want to go to the gym? Nobody will take me,” he said.

Although Lee said he couldn’t see, he could still be a voice for others.

God put me in this position to still be of service to people,” he said. “Disabled people have the challenges of daily life. They’ve got to go out into the public without any services or care. We have to take it upon ourselves to get the services we need. I hope to change that.”