Ray’s Best Friend

Scott Sylte stands firm for his service dog

As the sun dips into the Bay at the Calvert County marina where he lives, 59-year-old Scott Sylte stares into the Chesapeake. He likes an angry sea. With salt-and-pepper beard and a skipper’s cap, he more closely resembles a sea captain than the human rights champion he is.
    He doesn’t like the word activist — but it fits him.
    Politics was just a subject when Sylte was a liberal arts major at the University of Pennsylvania. But a few years later, his life in a largely African American community in York amounted to a crash-course in small-town politics.
    The Americans with Disabilities Act was new back then, and neither beeping lights for the visually impaired nor recessed curbs-cuts for wheelchair users had come to minority communities. Working with a city human relations case manager on behalf of a friend whose child was a quadriplegic as the result of cerebral palsy, Sylte filed a complaint against the city for ADA non-compliance.
    Eight years ago, Sylte’s own diagnose of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder made activism — the word he hates — a way of life.
    Since the auto accident that killed a pedestrian and traumatized him, Sylte gets around with the aid of a guide dog, a brown-eyed American fox hound named Ray.
    Ray and Sylte were paired through the Lost Dogs Foundation, an animal rescue group headquartered in Fairfax.
    Guide dogs like Ray are beginning to find acceptance. But not everybody has the 24-year-old ADA Service Dog laws down pat. So Ray is not always welcomed in public. Misunderstandings — at restaurants, shops, even medical offices — have given Sylte a new cause.
     Ray sat quietly under the table as Sylte ate at a national chain restaurant. When a customer complained, the manager demanded the pair leave. Sylte held his ground, and the police were called. With Ray fiercely loyal to his master, a tense situation ensued. That time Sylte and Ray got an apology and Sylte a refund.
    Ray and Sylte got in more trouble while accompanying a cancer patient for a biopsy in Prince Frederick. Because Sylte was a chaperone, not a patient, he was told to remove Ray from the waiting area. When Sylte refused, citing his rights under the ADA, he and Ray were removed by police and Sylte issued a no-trespassing citation.
    A bus ride brought still more trouble when a passenger threatened the pair with mace. Sylte emptied the bus when he countered with his own can of mace. When police questioned him and the bus driver, Sylte claims the officer “said he wished more people would stand up like you.”
    Call him a human rights champion, call him a nuisance, call the police. But please, he begs, don’t call him an activist.