"You can't bring that dog in here!"
"No dogs allowed!"
"Get that dog out."
"I don't take dogs."
These are some of the harsh realities for many assistance dog owners across the UK on a regular basis, including myself.
The charity Guide Dogs is currently running the Access All Areas campaign, a campaign which is geared towards raising awareness of assistance dog access denials and taking steps towards ensuring that more is done by establishments and service providers to prevent them from occurring.
A survey by Guide Dogs reveled that 7 out of 10 guide dog owners have previously been denied access to a shop based on the grounds that they work with an assistance dog. It further revealed that 44% of guide dog owners who responded to the survey between January and March 2015 who had experienced an access denial had been refused access by a taxi or minicab.
On May 25th 2016 Guide Dogs will be joined by over 100 guide dog owners and their dogs at Parliament to discuss with their local MP their experiences of being denied access, in a lobby for change. I will be one of those 100 guide owners in attendance of the lobby in a bid to represent the guide dog owner community and vocalize my views on the profound impact an access denial can have on a guide dog owner's confidence, mobility and autonomy. We will also be handing in a petition signed by over 50,000 people lobbying Government to take action on access denials.
I have been a guide dog owner for over 3 years and in that time I have faced situations in which I am denied access into a public place, service provider or establishment based on the grounds that I work with an assistance dog. As a writer, journalist and MA student my work requires me to travel to many different places with my guide dog and thus access denials have become a common occurrence for me.
However, more often than not little is done towards ensuring that access denials do not arise again. Research conducted by Guide Dogs revealed that minicab drivers who refuse access to guide dog owners receive fines that equate to the same amount that someone would receive for evading paying for a train fare. Despite the fact that refusing an assistance dog into a private hire vehicle or taxi is an illegal offence under theEquality Act (2010).
Access denials can have a huge impact on an assistance dog owner both psychologically and emotionally. They can leave a person feeling humiliated, belittled and vulnerable. Since qualifying with my guide dog Unity in 2012 on record I can recall a large number of access denials from minicabs, shops, franchises, public places and on one occasion a bus. A large percentage of the access denials I have experienced are from minicabs or taxis.
One of the first access denials I can recall occurred in 2012, a few months after qualifying with my guide dog. It was in the evening at around 11:45pm, I had been at a social night at my University Student Union. I had pre-arranged a minicab to collect me for this time. Legally, I am under no obligation to inform the taxi company of my having a guide dog, however out of consideration I always ensure that I inform the company that I am booking with that I have a guide dog.
On this occasion I had informed the company that I had a guide dog. However, when I arrived at the minicab, the driver, on noticing that I had a guide dog with me informed me that they did not take dogs and drove away. I was left stranded at midnight, in a poorly light street, in bad weather and by this point my phone was out of power thus I had no way to contact the company. I had no other option but to commute home on two buses and I did not arrive home until 1am. The company took no steps in reprimanding the driver and merely offered up an apology in reconciliation. For a long while after this occurrence I stopped attending social nights with my friends for fear that this same situation would occur again. It hugely dented my confidence and prevented me from partaking in the activities that my peers were enjoying. For the first few months of University, I could not enjoy the experience of socializing, which was something that I am entitled to as a person in my own right. In many ways this first access denial hugely impacted on my quality of life and my mobility. However, this was the first of many.
My most recent minicab access refusal occurred in January 2016, this time it was with a different minicab firm. Again, I had informed the company quite clearly that I had a guide dog and I had ear witnesses to verify this. The first taxi trip proved to be no problems whatsoever. However, on the return journey the minicab driver informed me that they had not been notified that I had a guide dog and that they would not be allowing me into the vehicle. After explaining that my guide dog was a necessity and that it was illegal for them to refuse me unless they had a medical exemption certificate, the driver allowed me into the vehicle.
However, when I had seated myself, the driver turned to face my guide dog and said in an aggressive manner 'if that dog touches me there will trouble for you.' I took this as a direct threat and immediately left the vehicle. There was a fully sighed member of the public present who was able to identify the driver and take a photographic image of the number plate. When I contacted the company they made a claim that I had not made them aware that I had a guide dog and that the driver may have had a medical exemption certificate. However, I informed them that this was not the case and that I had informed then that I had a guide dog and that the driver informed me that they did not have a medical exemption certificate. When I queried how many drivers they knew of that had a medical exemption certificate they were unable to provide me with a figure.
I took this matter further and reported it to the local taxi licensing authority, the cab driver received a warning that the incident would be logged and that if it occurred again their license to drive minicabs in the particular area would be revoked. No fine was issued and no action was taken against the driver for the threat they made towards my guide dog and myself.
I have had plenty of other access denials and each time they occur I report them to the relevant parties including my local Guide Dogs Mobility team, the company or establishment involved and if necessary the local taxi licensing authority if the access denial involves a minicab or taxi. I receive a varied response from the companies I deal with, when I deal with chain stores or large companies I usually receive an apology both verbally and written and an assurance that the incident will be logged and disability training will be provided to that particular branch or store where the access denial occured. When dealing with independent shops and retailers the response is not as positive. I usually receive no form of reconciliation from these independent retailers and often upon going into the same store again I am refused access once more.
The reasons why I am denied access vary. In some cases it derives from the fact that there is a lack of knowledge around assistance dogs and the laws surrounding assistance dogs and access to public places. More often it is due to the fact that they simply do not want a dog in the premises, regardless of the fact that my dog is a guide dog and therefore exempt from the no dogs policy. Other times I receive a more hostile response, people do not believe that I am visually impaired based on the way that I look and that therefore I do not require a guide dog. Other times people refuse me access due to genuine fear that they may have of dogs. There are other reasons, when it concerns minicab drivers and it is often because they are concerned that the dog will dirty their vehicle.
However, guide dogs are regularly groomed and wormed by their owners and examined by a Veterinary practitioner to ensure that they are hygienic and will not pose a threat to the health of the public when being taken into public places. Guide dogs are also specifically trained to behave in an amenable manor and are socialized from puppyhood in many kinds of environments with people, children and other animals to ensure the safety of guide dog, owner and members of the public. Guide dogs are carefully selected as puppies and they are selected hugely based on their personality, behavior and ability to socialize. Throughout the entire training process of a guide dog, the dogs are selected, trained and cared for with the upmost consideration to ensure that a guide dog works as effectively as possible.
These access denials have often prevented me from doing day to day tasks, such as getting to a University lecture, attending a job interview, socializing with my friends and even small things like going to buy a birthday present or buying some groceries. Simple things that people may not even consider become hugely significant when an access denial means I am unable to go about my daily business like other people. They have made me feel like a second-class citizen and that I do not matter as an individual. However, behind each assistance dog is a individual, an individual with commitments, hobbies, friends, families and most importantly a life. When access denials occur it isn't just a simple case that a law has been breached, a person's confidence may have been broken, their mobility may be compromised and their self-esteem impeded on.
It can become incredibly frustrating considering that these dogs are given to people like myself to enhance our quality of life and enable us to become more mobile. When these access denials occur our mobility is prevented and our freedom of movement is hindered.
In the experiences I have had as a guide dog owner dealing with access denials, my belief is that the most effective way to ensure that access denials are combated is through a mixture of education and awareness. A large number of the access denials I have faced come from a place of unawareness towards assistance dogs and what their role is. Establishments and service providers need to deliver further disability training to all their staff in which the different types of assistance dogs are covered, explaining their roles and how to recognize them. Further to this, I personally believe that more awareness needs to be raised surrounding the legal implications of refusing an assistance dog owner entry and that this kind of treatment is in fact a form of disability discrimination.
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