In a fresh bid to raise awareness and tackle alarmingly high rates of assistance dog refusals, the charity Guide Dogs is launching its ‘High Street Heroes Week’ this September. The event will run from 4th until the 10th September and campaigners across the country will visit local businesses promoting the access rights of assistance dogs and their owners.
Since the implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and then the Equality Act 2010, it has been unlawful for businesses and service providers not to provide assistance dog users the same access to goods or services as everyone else, or fail to make reasonable adjustments. Yet many businesses continue to flout the law.
An Access All Areas study by Guide Dogs, conducted in 2015, found that 76% of participating owners had experienced difficulty accessing goods or services because they use an assistance dog. A similar investigation by Hearing Dogs for the Deaf put the access refusal total at 70% of users.
It is important to remember that behind these statistics are several thousands of people facing real life battles to be accepted and welcomed within wider society. Seemingly simple tasks like popping to the shop for a pint of milk can turn into a real ordeal if you and your assistance dog are prohibited from doing so by an ill-informed business owner.
In my experience as a Guide dog owner of 4 years, I have been asked to leave a dental practice, two convenience stores and a take-away. Of these instances, two were dealt with on the day by speaking with staff and clarifying the legislation, another was resolved by a Guide Dogs Community Engagement Officer and in the fourth case the business owner who ignored all attempts to engage with him, finally acknowledged the law following several widely spread social media posts into his illegal stance and the subsequent public disproval.
The vast majority of businesses and service providers present no problems with regards to access, which makes it more of a shock when a refusal happens. From my personal perspective, I will always challenge these instances however rare, not just for my own benefit but also for other assistance dog users who may not have the confidence to do so.
The High Street Heroes campaign will see volunteers visiting local businesses. Each business or service provider will be provided with a leaflet detailing the access rights of assistance dog owners, and will be asked to place an ‘Assistance Dogs Welcome’ sticker on their door or window. They will also have the opportunity to have any queries regarding the law answered.
Businesses should also note that this is not just about improving staff awareness and getting nothing in return. 1 in 5 people in the UK have a long term illness or disability; a sizeable portion of the population with an equally sizeable spending power. A recent BBC report highlights that spending by disabled people is worth £249 billion a year to the UK economy. Companies that actively promote an inclusive ethos, for example by welcoming assistance dogs, are therefore in a stronger position to attract this income.
And that is why this September myself, accompanied by my guide dog Tango, will be out in our local area promoting these valuable access rights, to help improve inclusion in general. We hope many of you reading this will choose to do the same.
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By Sam Heaton