As someone with a severe visual impairment, my assistance dog is a vital part of my life, both as a guide and friend. We have a special bond that you will understand if you have seen the Sponsor a Guide Dog ads on TV. They show just how much assistance dogs give independent lives back to people with visual impairments, and how that independence is to be treasured.
My relationship with Zodiac is the best; we look after each other, care about each other, and occasionally irritate the hell out of each other. Quite honestly, we're like an old married couple, but without the bickering over who gets to have the remote control.
And I take it personally when other people don't see Zodiac as quite such a shining star. He's an extension of me, even if I don't possess a wagging tail, thumping against anything he walks past, but at least I know he's happy. And if people don't show him the same kind of respect that I do but treat him with indifference or as 'a dirty animal' it feels like a real insult, like I've been thumped by more than just a waggy tail.
I've lost count of the number of times I've tried to hail a cab, or enter a hotel or restaurant, only to be told that I'm not entitled to access these basic services which everyone else takes for granted, because of Zodiac. Having to explain for the umpteenth time that as someone with a severe visual impairment, I am entitled to take my working dog into any of these spaces without being subjected to trial, jury and judge, inevitably wears you down. We feel like we've been tossed into the doghouse. It leaves me -- and Zodiac -- salivating. And the law surrounding this issue couldn't be any clearer.
The Equality Act 2010 states all businesses and organisations have a legal responsibility to provide reasonable adjustments for everyone who has an assistance dog. This means in the overwhelming majority of cases businesses have to ensure access to both a person with a visual impairment and their guide animal. There will only be very rare exceptions to this. For example, when a guide dog is so covered in mud that they are likely to cause significant damage to the premises concerned. Zodiac is a very clean machine, he licks his paws clean to a higher polish than most shoes, even if you have a butler doing the job. The funny thing is, there many humans that are not as clean as some dogs but they are still allowed access!
As it happens, incidences of legally denying entry are rare, and generally open to legal challenge, either through the courts or mediation. Naturally, most businesses are not particularly keen on either recourse, because of the cost and negative publicity that ensue.
Zodiac is my mobility aid just like a wheel chair or a white cane so this is how it needs to be seen. You wouldn't say no blind people allowed or no wheelchairs allowed so why a guide dog? Guide dogs empower people with sight loss to get around easier.
With the law clearly defending the rights of visually impaired people, why is it still the case then that Zodiac and myself are so often denied access to the services that others take for granted, begging for a table in a restaurant or a seat in a cab? In case you're wondering, I don't expect Zodiac to sit on a restaurant chair gobbling up a scrumptious dinner from a plate, but he does like to lie quietly by my feet, and would no doubt voluntarily clean up any dropped crumbs.
If I feel a personal humiliation and indignation, I can't imagine what Zodiac is feeling. Tail between his legs, looking glum, not a bone in sight.
Sometimes refusals to places have been aggressive, not exactly baring gnashing molars but more intimidating than a growly dog. I have even been turned away from large chain stores, with sales assistants advising me that even assistance dogs are not allowed on their premises. They physically push us both out, and Zodiac isn't even dribbling. I have also been told that I would only be able to sit in the bar areas of restaurants. It's like the two of us are a different species.
Even with my pretty shocking vision, on multiple occasions I have witnessed taxi drivers slowing to pick me up, but as they notice Zodiac, they speed away, quicker than Zodiac could run to fetch a ball...and that's pretty quick. On the occasions when they have stopped for me, and belatedly noticed my dog, up come a thousand excuses why they cannot accept my fare...by which they mean my four-legged friend. They argue that all dogs are dirty, that the driver has severe allergies, or that it is against their religion to sit so close to an animal or drive one around in their vehicle. If you've never heard of a laughing dog, well, even Zodiac finds it hard to walk in a straight line after hearing this.
We laugh and we hurt. And it hurts more when I have had to argue on multiple occasions with drivers who insist they are legally entitled to charge me more for my journey because of my assistance dog. This is not the case. Anyone who tries to charge someone with a disability more for their journey because of their dog should be reported immediately
Despite the great strides that have been made in disability awareness, these kinds of incidents demonstrate how much still needs to be done. To begin with, I would propose mandatory disability training for anyone working in customer-facing roles in shops, restaurants and transport services. Workers in these roles need to understand not only what assistance dogs are, but how they deserve to be treated.
Increasingly, large numbers of people working in the service sector in the UK may be from areas with different cultural attitudes to disabilities and animals. It is vital they are made aware of issues surrounding disability and service provision.
Only then will Zodiac and I stop feeling like we can be booted into the boot.
Things not to say to a guide dog owner is a video clip developed by Visualise Training and Consultancy. It discusses a range of common situations that guide dog owners come across and aims to raise awareness of guide dogs.
Dan Williams is the founder of Visualise Training and Consultancy.
For more information on Visualise's disability and visual impairment awareness training:
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