This article looks at the impacts and issues surrounding guide dog refusal: the distress caused when a person with a disability is refused access, your legal rights under these circumstances, and the increasing use of mediation as a cost-effective means of addressing these instances of discrimination.
When you are denied access to shops, restaurants, public buildings or modes of transport because you have a guide dog, it is important you know your rights, which can include remedy via disability mediation.
Unfortunately, some disabled people find it difficult to remedy refusals through Guide Dogs or the relevant assistance dog charities and may find legal remedies expensive.
It is illegal for any service provider to deny entry to someone with a disability because of any equipment they may need as a result of this disability. This applies whether the equipment takes the form of a wheelchair, cane or guide dog. It is also important to know that if you find yourself the victim of discrimination, options are available to remedy the situation, including court and mediation services to correct this wrong.
So what is mediation?
The advantages of mediation are threefold. Mediation tends to lead to far swifter resolution than litigation. It is often conducted and resolved over the course of a day, whereas legal proceedings can often take months to resolve. Secondly, because resolution tends to be speedier, costs are likely to be significantly lower, and the option of litigation can be preserved in the unusual event that resolution isn’t arrived at.
The aim of mediation is always to understand and resolve, whereas legal wrangling often has the opposite effect of entrenching opposed positions. By giving both parties a voice and an opportunity to express their point of view not only empowers but allows them the opportunity for a fuller understanding and clearer perspectives.
Equality of Access legislation
Under the Equality Act of 2010, people with disabilities have the same right to access businesses, leisure and hospitality services, public transport and public buildings as their non-disabled peers. There should be no increase in service costs and no disability discrimination in these circumstances.
Businesses and service providers are legally obliged to provide ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their facilities and services to ensure equality of access for all individuals, regardless of disability. As a term, ‘reasonable adjustment’ is fairly vague in construction and open to misinterpretation by businesses and service providers. It is important to know, therefore, that denial of access to someone with a guide or assistance dog can only be acceptable in very rare circumstances, which are referenced later in this article.
The scale of the problem
A Guide Dogs survey revealed that three-quarters of owners of guide and assistance dogs have at some point been refused entry to a business, public building or mode of transport when with their dog. This is despite the vast majority claiming that on a day-to-day basis, their experiences of access had been largely positive.
The impacts of discrimination
We all know it can take just one instance of discrimination to undermine the confidence of anyone. Its impacts can be far greater for someone who may already feel vulnerable because of their disability.
Being denied entry is not only frustrating in itself but is also potentially dangerous if it prevents access to vital goods and services. It is also deeply undermining, exacerbating the social isolation many people with disabilities already feel in their daily lives and interactions. It can also be deeply humiliating to be treated essentially as a second-class citizen and denied access to the social opportunities other people take for granted.
Reasons for refusal
Uninformed business owners and service providers may cite a range of reasons for not admitting a working guide dog to their premises. These can include health and safety concerns relating to areas where food is prepared and served, potential customer and staff allergies that a dog might induce, and the general mess a dog might create if, for example, it is caked in mud.
People with disabilities have the right to expect reasonable adjustments in all of these instances but not the right to automatically demand access, irrespective of the consequences to the business. If, for example, a small café owner has an extreme allergic reaction to animal fur, it may go beyond the scope of reasonable adjustment to demand access. Similarly, if someone with a guide dog is looking to access certain controlled areas within a hospital, the hospital would have the right to deny entry. Under either of these circumstances, however, the café or hospital would be responsible for ensuring your assisted access and your dog’s safety.
It is important to be aware that instances of lawful refusal are rare, and most refusals will be unlawful and open to challenge.
What would you do?
How should you respond when witnessing or experiencing refusal on the part of a business owner or service provider? Evidence is key and provides a vital source of information for any potential prosecution. Make a note of any dispute, or use your smartphone to record any footage that might be useful. If the dispute is over access to a taxi cab, record the vehicle’s licence plate or registration number or ask for assistance to help you do so. If you are offering assistance to someone with a vision impairment, be aware of the importance of introducing yourself to this person as you approach, bearing in mind they may not be aware of your presence.
Getting something done
Whether or not you have physical evidence of denied entry, you do have the right to seek redress. You can seek advice on making a complaint to a service provider because of the way you have been treated by calling the RNIB Helpline on 0303 123 9999 and asking to be connected to the Legal Rights Service, or alternatively, you can call Access Mediation Services and enquire about disability mediation on 01905 330055.
If your disability is not a vision impairment, you may wish to contact the Equality Advisory Support Service.
Options may involve redress through a legal representative or the more commonly chosen option of mediation.