If you’ve been keeping track of the news recently, you might have noticed that the issue of guide dog access refusals has been cropping up with disappointing regularity. Some of those news stories have even featured London Vision staff, with both Alex Pepper (Networks Manager), and Bhavini Makwana (Engagement Manager), appearing on the news talking about their experiences of being refused services on account on their guide dogs. The problem is so widespread that Guide Dogs for the Blind, along with one hundred guide dog owners – including Bhavini and Alex – will visit Parliament on 19 June to highlight the issue among MPs.

Sadly, if you are a guide dog owner you are very likely to have experienced a guide dog refusal. According to Guide Dogs for the Blind Association:

  • 75% of assistance dog owners they surveyed by Guide Dogs have been refused access to a restaurant, shop or taxi.
  • In a one-year period, 42% of assistance dog owners were refused entry to a taxi or minicab because of their dog.
  • 33% of assistance dog owners surveyed were refused entry to a minicab or taxi because the driver said they had an allergy, but didn't hold a valid medical exemption certificate as legally required.
  • 20% of assistance dog owners surveyed said that a minicab or taxi arrived but the driver drove off without even speaking to them.

[Source: Guide Dogs for the Blind]

The Equalities Act (2010) is supposed to legally protect people from discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of a disability. But, what’s clear from the experiences mentioned above, there is a severe lack of knowledge and understanding around the Act. The legislation aims to help people with a “protected characteristic” – such as disability. Because of the Equality Act, service providers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to avoid putting people with disabilities at a substantial disadvantage compared to people who are not disabled.

When a service provider such as a shop or restaurant refuses a guide dog, they are essentially refusing the guide dog owner, because, like a white cane, the guide dog is their mobility aid. Guide dogs are highly trained assistance dogs: they help their owner avoid obstacles, find safe road crossings and dropped kerbs and allow blind and partially sighted people to navigate independently. Refusing someone access without a guide dog, telling them they “can leave it outside”, is putting a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage because the guide dog is their mobility aid.

While the Equality Act only requires that service providers make ‘reasonable adjustments’ – so a restaurant that has a ‘no dogs’ policy must adjust that policy to allow in a guide dogs – an access refusal in a restaurant is a civil and not a criminal matter. However, access refusals by taxi drivers are a criminal matter. Drivers are required to carry assistance animals by law, and failure, or refusal to do so is illegal. If you would like to find out more about Equalities Act and the law around guide dogs, please read the RNIB and Guide Dogs’ toolkit.

While being refused access to a cab, shop or restaurant is inconvenient and frustrating for a guide dog owner (as well as being against the law), it’s important to note that it exerts a corresponding emotional toll. As Alex says:

“It always takes me by surprise that someone could be so ignorant, and it makes me feel like I’m not worthy of visiting the place that I’ve attended, which has included restaurants and shops in the past”.

And Bhavini:

“Choosing to have a beautiful partnership with a guide dog is life changing and certainly increases your confidence to travel independently. However, when service providers and businesses are unaware of the law that refusing a guide dog is actually illegal, it makes you feel demoralised when they constantly refuse you. Minicab firms can leave you stranded and abandoned and it is humiliating, disempowering and affects your emotional well-being, especially when it happens time after time. Guide dog owners have every right to enjoy their life, work, study and do every day normal activities just like everybody else!”

It is clear that more needs to be done to address this issue. We hope that on 19 June, MPs listen to the experiences of guide dog owners, and commit to raising awareness of the Equality Act and law around assistance animals.