20/02/2017 06:40 GMT | Updated 21/02/2018 05:12 GMT

Assistance Dogs And Access Refusals - Why Isn't The Law Being Enforced?

Over 7,000 people in the UK rely on an Assistance Dog. Assistance Dogs are dogs trained to assist a disabled person, learning at least three tasks that mitigate their disability and having extensive training to make sure they can work safely and behave appropriately in public settings. These dogs increase independence, they ease the burden of caring on those surrounding the disabled person, they get people out and about, they give confidence and not only that, they improve emotional wellbeing. They change people's lives. Any Assistance Dog Partner will tell you their dog is not 'just a dog' - they are the person's reason for being. I would know; I have an Assistance Dog called Molly, who trained with an Assistance Dogs UK registered charity called Dog Assistance in Disability (Dog A.I.D.). Assistance dogs take many forms. There are Guide Dogs, Hearing Dogs, Mobility Assistance Dogs, Seizure Alert Dogs, Medical Alert Assistance Dogs, Autism Assistance Dogs as well as others, such as Psychiatric Assistance Dogs which are currently not recognised by Assistance Dogs UK (ADUK). The possibilities and ways in which dogs can support people is endless, so there are other forms of Assistance Dog not included in my list. There are seven charities currently registered with ADUK, but there are other charities and organisations who are not a part of the ADUK coalition, and many people choose to train their own dog to assist them (Owner-Trained).

Photo credit - author's own.

Assistance Dogs are both life-changing and life-saving. Thanks to extensive training and high standards, Assistance Dog Partnerships have been afforded rights under the Equality Act. This allows them access to all areas, with few exceptions, so that the dog is able to accompany and assist their partner as they go about their daily life. However, access refusals are regrettably very common. You might think, if the law is on their side, why are they having issues? The problem is, very few places are aware of the law surrounding Assistance Dogs, and mistake them for pets. Others claim that they can refuse access based on religious grounds, or based on a possible issue with someone being allergic to dogs. This is illegal, but still, partnerships are refused. There are stories which are finally filtering into the media where partnerships have been refused, such as the case where a Muslim taxi driver refused to allow a couple and their Guide Dog into his taxi, claiming it was against his religion. He was fined costs of almost £600 for doing so for breaching the Equality Act 2010, which states that a person cannot be refused access to a taxi based on them having an Assistance Dog. The only exception to this law is if the driver has a a doctor's letter stating they are allergic to dogs and it would pose a risk to their health to accept an Assistance Dog. Claiming an allergy without a medical letter, or claiming it is against your religion, are not justifiable excuses for breaking the law. There is also the case of Tony Breach, who was refused access to a cafe due to their "no pets" policy, despite Tony explaining his dog is a Guide Dog and is protected by the law. The cafe workers insisted they weren't breaking the law, leaving Tony and his dog standing outside in the rain whilst he tried to explain the law to them.

Part of the problem with access refusals is the lack of knowledge and understanding of the Equality Act and how it protects Assistance Dog Partnerships. People think they know better, and that a "no pets" policy absolves them of allowing entry to Assistance Dogs. There needs to be better awareness of the law, training for staff and businesses about Assistance Dogs, and not only that, but for the law to be enforced. Many partnerships who get refused are so exasperated that they don't initiate a legal case against whomever has refused them. Not only that, even when cases are brought, the law is poorly enforced. The Access All Areas campaign by Guide Dogs UK found 52% of Guide Dog owners have been refused entry to a service in the last 5 years - and that's only Guide Dogs, that doesn't include the other thousands of Assistance Dog Partnerships in the UK. Also, 12% of business owners surveyed said they did not understand their legal obligations. These are shocking statistics, and they need to be rectified. Awareness of the law, and enforcing the law, is paramount to prevent discrimination against Assistance Dog Owners.

As many people say, "You wouldn't refuse a person entry to a business based on them being in a wheelchair" - so don't refuse them based on them having an Assistance Dog, which is also essential for their daily living and mobility.

Photo credit - author's own.