The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Equality Act 2010 have been both pivotal in increasing access and opportunities for disabled people. Yet over two decades on from the implementation of the first legislation, the message is still not getting through.
Users of assistance dogs are one group of people who find the law is ignored or flouted with alarming regularity. As defined by the organisation Assistance Dogs UK (ADUK), an assistance dog is any dog whose training and welfare meet the higher ‘kite mark assurance’ standards. Their training is aimed at enabling their owners to have increased independence, through the animals help with practical tasks or emotional support. ADUK is a coalition of seven different charities; Guide Dogs, Hearing Dogs for the Deaf, Canine Partners, Dogs A.I.D, Dogs for Good, Medical Detection Dogs and Support Dogs collectively representing over 7,000 UK assistance dog owners.
Under the Equality Act, all users of a recognised assistance dog have the right to expect the same access to, and provision of goods and services as any other customer. The responsibility is on businesses and service providers to make reasonable adjustments to meet that expectation. These rights are entrenched in our nation’s law, but evidently not yet in society.
The research of two of the biggest assistance dog charities highlights how the freedoms these Parliamentary Acts aimed to create are being impinged on, on a daily basis. A survey by Hearing Dogs for the Deaf found that 70% of its service users have been refused access to a business or a service. Similarly, between July 2013 and June 2014, Public Engagement officers at Guide Dogs dealt with 485 enquiries about access or reports of access refusals. This was followed by a 2015 study which found 75% of assistance dog users being turned away by a company or service provider.
The legalities are very clear: assistance dogs should be accepted, and preferably welcomed, in all areas accessible to the general public, almost without exception. However, equality is more than a yes or no question. It is about freedom, choice, independence and ‘living’. When one business refuses entry to an assistance dog owner, regardless of ill-informed reasoning, it is far reaching in impact. For the person to whom the refusal is dealt, it can affect that person on many levels.
Emotionally – Many people report feeling anger, injustice, humiliation, upset or intimidated when faced with a refusal. Their confidence can be knocked to such an extent that they feel apprehensive when accessing new services, through fearing further refusals.
Economically – Many take for granted all the consumer choices available on a daily basis, but if local shops refuse access for owners of assistance dogs, then some may feel forced into paying travel costs to shop elsewhere and in reality lose their right to shop based on product range or price, instead having to base where to shop solely on where they feel welcomed.
Socially – Unfortunately, assistance dog refusals by taxis and restaurants are two of the most common scenarios.
The internet is full of stories of guide dog owners being turned away from meals out with family, or being left alone on street corners as the taxi they have ordered fails to stop upon the driver sighting the guide dog. How would you feel if you feared this every time you met with friends?
Assistance dog owners have been wrongly denied access to restaurants on grounds of “hygiene” or fear of dogs, ‘No dogs’ policies, cultural misconceptions, allergies (only taxi drivers with an authorised allergy medical exemption certificate can refuse to carry an assistance dog) and more.
However, the reasons all boil down to three points:
– A lack of awareness of the vital roles assistance dogs perform.
– A lack of education about the high standards these dogs are maintained at in terms of both living standards and training.
– A lack of respect of an individual’s choice to use an assistance dog to support their daily activities.
Until these points are addressed throughout our society, true equality will never be achieved.
And to the predominate number of companies and providers who are accepting and welcoming of assistance dogs: Thank you. Battling for equal rights from a misinformed minority is much easier to do with the support of the majority.
For more information or to get involved with Guide Dogs ‘Access All Areas’ campaign visit www.guidedogs.org.uk/supportus/campaigns/access-all-areas
By Sam Heaton, Guide Dog Owner