Being matched with my first Guide Dog Colin, 3 years ago this month, was a life changing moment. The feeling of going out on my terms meant I regained my independence, and it gave me a new sense of confidence. I walked faster than I did with a white cane, I wasn’t as anxious about going to unfamiliar places and was able to make unexpected journeys without thinking twice. I fell in love with him instantly. I felt proud and sometimes, yes, I actually forget that I am blind.
My first access refusal
Then it happened. Something that you would never get informed about. How to deal with it, not just practically but emotionally too. How to pick yourself up without feeling broken, or how to regain confidence. Not just within yourself, but in humanity too. My first encounter, when I was left stranded for 90 minutes after everyone had gone home from work. The area was deserted and it was getting dark. The minicab driver approached and then left after discovering I was the passenger. The minicab firm kept making excuses and I just felt abandoned, cold, humiliated, and worthless.
I will never forget my first Guide Dog access refusal and feel quite emotional just thinking about it now. However, it does not stop. Further refusals have occurred with other minicab drivers, Uber drivers, restaurants, dentists, places of worship and other businesses too. It also happens with loved ones due to the lack of knowledge and misconceptions around what a Guide Dog really is.
Lockdown access refusal
In August 2020, after being in lockdown, I went to a restaurant, the first time that year. My husband and I walked in this Italian eatery and there it was, the all too familiar line: “Sorry no dogs allowed”. We did the usual: explained that he is a working Guide Dog, showed the yellow book and shared information online proving what we are stating is true, moreover that it was illegal to refuse a working Guide Dog. He was in his full harness but sadly nothing was working.
The owner, only a few metres away, eating his own lunch, did not want us in his restaurant and that was final. Made to feel ashamed and humiliated yet again, we walked away with our heads down, Numb, yet determined not to let this experience consume us, we searched for somewhere else.
To our horror, it happened again, the very same afternoon. This Greek restaurant eventually listened after we spent twenty minutes explaining the legal requirements around a working guide dog. He was willing to call the manager but at that point, I was exasperated and I just wanted to leave. I was tired of fighting, and my appetite had disappeared.
Finding the strength to fight the access refusal
The next few days filled myself and my family with sadness. I thought a lot about the encounters and felt simultaneously annoyed and weak. Despite this, the messages I received from loved one and strangers alike gave me strength and encouragement. I knew I had to act this time around. I didn’t want another disabled person to feel inadequate, especially not because of the ignorance of other people.
The process of taking legal action against the restaurant owner took almost 12 months. Initially, the owners ignored all communications from my representatives, and then denied the refusals. Luckily, I had video evidence for one of the access refusals – experiencing access refusals repeatedly taught me to film encounters as a matter of course.
The 12 months were stressful, so much so that sometimes I felt like giving up as I was forced to re-live that moment, and the way I felt, time and time again. But the thought of them refusing someone else and treating them as horrifically as they had treated me, gave me the ammunition I needed to keep fighting for justice. Eventually, the restaurant manager agreed to settle, sparing me from having to go to court.
Terms of the settlement
As a result of the agreed settlement, in my favour, the restaurant has now employed a Disability and Equality Adviser for training staff. Assistance Dogs welcome stickers are displayed in their establishment, and I was compensated.
I wish I could say that this was the last time I had to go through this kind of experience, but sadly, that’s far from the case. Fresh from the news of the settlement of the last access refusal, it happens again. This time in high street shops – Primark and Superdrug. So, the emotional turmoil begins all over again, as I must prove I have as much right to shop as everyone else, and state the laws around guide dog access to staff. Even when one battle ends, it seems the new one is never far behind.
Who should lead this fight?
Is it the responsibility of individual guide dog owners to keep fighting this fight? I have only had my Guide Dog for three years, and I have experienced countless access refusals – as have 75% of assistance dog owners. But this isn’t a new problem – it’s been happening for decades!
Guide Dogs for the Blind has been campaigning about access refusals but has focussed on taxis and minicabs. It wants the Government to commit to a date when they will introduce the requirement for disability equality training for all taxi and minicab drivers. But it’s clear this problem goes much further than taxis and minicabs.
Equality Act 2010
My recent experiences at restaurants and at high street shops shows that messaging around the Equality Act 2010 isn’t getting through. Primark and Superdrug employees undergo training for their roles – why isn’t equality and diversity training part of this training?
More pressure needs to be put on the Government from disability rights organisations to force establishments to uphold the law around equality. All access refusals should be a criminal offence – not just ones involving taxis and Mini Cabs. Too often it falls on the victim to advocate for themselves, which is an exhausting and often demoralising process.
Sight loss and service animal organisations need to work with security companies to educate their staff, and local authorities need to ensure that businesses operating in their boroughs understand and uphold the law. The fact that this is still happening in 2021 is unacceptable.