A recent survey by Guide Dogs has shown that almost half (49%) of guide dog owners surveyed have experienced an access refusal in the last year. As an assistance dog owner, this has also happened to me on numerous occasions. In the majority of cases I just explain to the service provider, be it a shop or restaurant, that my dog is a registered assistance dog and they usually apologise profusely and let me in. I also hope they will not make the same mistake again and be far more welcoming to assistance dogs in the future.
However, this is not always the case, as my experience at the Whistlestop Food & Wine shop at Liverpool Street Station sadly shows.
My story starts in 2011, when I first visited the Whistlestop Food & Wine shop to buy a drink before getting my train back to London. I was told in no uncertain terms that I had to leave as I had my assistance dog with me. As usual I explained to them that Yancey was my assistance dog, and had the same rights as a guide dog to be there. I felt rather uncomfortable so quickly bought my drink and left.
A few months later, I went into the shop again and exactly the same thing happened. I decided at this point that I would write them a letter as I was concerned that many other assistance dogs and guide dogs would be coming through Liverpool Street Station to go to Stratford where the Olympics and Paralympics were going to be held the following year so thought this was a good opportunity to educate the shop owners. I wrote a very informative letter advising them of assistance dogs rights and enclosing some Assistance Dogs UK stickers for them to put in their window. I received no reply to my letter. In hindsight, I should have followed it up but I just decided instead that I’d shop somewhere else if I wanted anything at Liverpool Street Station.
However, a few years later, being in a rush, and the Whistlestop being the most convenient, I decided to try again. Much to my disappointment, I was again told I had to leave with my dog. Feeling brave, I asked to speak to the manager, whose explanation was that lots of people brought their dogs in so he had to ask them all to leave. I again explained that it was obvious my dog was an assistance dog as she had a harness and was wearing a jacket clearly identifying her as such. She was also behaving as an assistance dog should. He seemed quite dismissive of me and I had absolutely no confidence that should I go in the shop again that I wouldn’t be told to leave.
I therefore decided that I would bring a case against them for discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. Having worked with Chris Fry at Unity Law on a previous case, I decided to give him a call. One of his solicitors was assigned to my case and they basically did all the hard work. The case took a few months to settle and the Whistlestop shop had to agree to stop their discriminatory practices and had to pay me a small amount of compensation. I sincerely hope that no other guide or assistance dog will now be turned away.
I often read about organisations asking people to sign petitions to stop discrimination but we have the law on our side. I would prefer to encourage other disabled people to exert their rights. It can seem scary bringing a legal case, but from my experience it was really simple and in the majority of cases it will be done under a no win no fee agreement, so you often will not be left to pay legal bills.
I have now brought a number of Equality Act cases as I’m determined to make the high street more accessible. These have included a case against a restaurant with no accessible toilet, and a Pizza Express for being completely inaccessible. I have put my compensation payments to good use as they paid for me to study a law degree with the Open University, which I finished last year. I now plan on helping other disabled people to bring Equality Act cases too.
By Helen Dolphin