Discrimination against people with assistance dogs happens more often than you might imagine, and it never gets easier. BBC journalist Damon Rose tells his own story.
Last Friday, Transport for London took a mini cab driver to court for refusing to take my guide dog, and I was due to be the witness. The driver pleaded not guilty but, five minutes before the trial was due to start, he changed his plea to guilty. I won, I’m very pleased.
Over the years, I became fed up – as driver after driver refused to carry me and my dog. I took to getting my iPhone out sometimes to film as I attempted to make journeys. And then, one morning in May last year, I captured one such refusal on video.
When you watch the footage back, I am quite happy leaving the house – talking to my guide dog, telling the camera he’s sweet. He’s a small Labrador retriever cross, he’s three years old and his name is DeeBee.
As I walk towards where I imagine the taxi has parked, it plays out like a textbook case of discrimination – the kind that assistance dog owners are more than familiar with.
The driver greets me in a friendly manner and then he spots the dog.
“Oh I’m sorry sir, I am allergic to dogs,” he says.
I’ve learned that taxi drivers can’t just say they’re allergic and drive away. They need proof of their allergy because many would rather not carry a dog, perhaps not understanding that assistance dogs are highly trained and won’t jump all over the seats like an excitable puppy.
The Equality Act 2010 states that taxi and minicab drivers must carry assistance dogs unless they have genuine health reasons not to do so. Local authorities will provide a driver with an exemption certificate if they give proof from an appropriately qualified medic. The certificates should then be available to show to an assistance dog owner on demand.
The ability to read the certificates is, of course, a bit of an issue for many guide dog owners – but my plan was to capture his paperwork on film and show it to a colleague later.
So, I asked for his exemption certificate. The video shows him hunting through papers in his car and finding nothing – but he assures me he has an allergy and urges: “You can check with my GP.”
“I’m getting sneezy because I’m staying near the dog,” he says. “This is going to put me in danger of my health, and surely you don’t really want that do you?”
And indeed, I really wouldn’t want him to be harmed if he did genuinely have an allergy. But was he being harmed? Or was I being wronged?
“If it’s such a big health issue for you, you would have got an exemption certificate,” you hear me say on the video.
While being questioned in court, the driver maintained he had an allergy but, nine months on from the incident, was still unable to provide proof.
The driver worked for Uber but does not any more. If you open the Uber app, go to the menu, click on Help then Accessibility, you’ll see that Uber provides a specific space for assistance dog owners to report any issues arising when using the Uber partners taxi: “I want to report a service animal issue”.
This is how I have reported five refusal incidents in the past 18 months and have been called by friendly Irish-accented staff asking if I’m OK and then taking down details.
A survey of more than 1,000 assistance dog owners, conducted by Guide Dogs in spring 2015, found that 75% had been refused access to a restaurant, shop or taxi because they had an assistance dog with them.
My video footage helped me to get justice in this case.
TFL’s lawyer told the court the driver had claimed initially that I had been aggressive and had “chased” him – not easy to do if you are blind. She went on to say that the driver had conceded this was not the case, after having viewed the video in which I was very calm and measured.
The driver in the video I took has been blurred out – at my request. That’s not because he’s innocent – he’s not – but because he’s received a fine plus court fees which amount to almost £1,500 – and I think that’s punishment enough.
The reason I’m sharing the video is because disability discrimination is an odd beast and, to the untrained eye, may not look like discrimination at all. But what happens in this video is a criminal offence – when you become a cab driver, you sign up to this contract. If you don’t want to take dogs, don’t be a cab driver.
Minicab or private hire vehicle drivers (unless they have a medical exemption):
• Must carry the assistance dog and allow it to remain with their owner
• Cannot refuse a booking, or refuse to carry out a booking, due to someone having an assistance dog with them
• Cannot charge extra for carrying an assistance dog
• Have a duty to provide a reasonable service
Taken from the Guide Dogs charity website
If you watch the video and think “he seems nice to me”, that’s not the point. He probably is a really nice fella, but didn’t understand the implications of what he was doing – how it excludes people. That’s why the laws exist. When the next taxi turns up, and the driver lets the dog jump in, that doesn’t fix what just happened. It does not stop what happened spinning round in your mind for days.
I have initiated two more cases against minicab drivers since this one, both of whom just drove away without saying a word. Now, each time I leave my front door I get my camera ready because I fear I’ll be refused again – like I have been dozens of times before. That goes for restaurants and the occasional shop too.
An old online disability magazine, Ragged Edge, once named this type of thing “little acts of degradation”.
These days we might think of it as the kind of drip, drip, drip effect which causes trauma – chipping away at that part of your brain which stores all your disability insecurities, the job rejections, the name-calling across the street, the mandatory online training at work that turns out to be inaccessible… and taxi drivers, who in this case abandoned me on the pavement from where it took me several minutes to find my front door again even though it was just feet away.
The big irony is that I ordered a mini cab to pick me up from outside the magistrates’ court after the hearing. Can you guess what happened? The taxi driver called me when he arrived, asked me where I was, told me he could see me, then cancelled the job and drove away.
Admittedly, it’s not too easy to park directly outside the court where I was – but he chose to leave a blind person on the kerb, in the rain and sleet, without attempting to find another location and without any explanation.
It’s up to me to guess what happened. I think I can. And if I’m wrong… I’m afraid I’m still thinking it.