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Saying “yes” to Guide Dogs

A NEW advocacy and education program spearheaded by Guide Dogs Australia is reminding businesses, industries and the community that Guide Dogs in harness are legally allowed to enter all public places and that it is an offence to deny or charge a fee for entry.

The ‘Access All Areas’ program has been developed in response to a recent client survey that revealed one in two Guide Dog handlers across Australia have been discriminately refused entry to a public place or service because of their Guide Dog in the past two years – some more than 10 times.

The survey showed that cafes and restaurants were the main offenders, with 71 per cent of survey respondents reporting a refusal of entry, followed by taxies and rideshares at 58 per cent.

Motels, theatres, office buildings and hospitals were named as other locations that handlers experienced discrimination.

Seventy per cent of handlers also reported they have had to prove their legal right to enter with their Guide Dog by showing an ID card or by way of explanation after initially being denied access.

“While the public generally do the right thing, Guide Dog handlers continue to face many barriers when going about their daily lives,” Guide Dogs Tasmania acting chief executive officer Debra Barnes said.

“Imagine how you’d feel if you weren’t allowed into a café or taxi, or told you couldn’t stay at a particular hotel?

“Guide Dogs are not pets – they are highly trained to open up the world for people who are blind or vision impaired, not to close it down, which is effectively what denying access does.

“Guide Dog handlers are being refused access to locations and services because of the very dog that is there to help them lead an independent life.”

Guide Dog handlers reported that being denied access left them feeling frustrated, angry, upset and humiliated, and this was exactly how Hobart-based Guide Dog handler Vanessa Ransley felt recently when she and her Guide Dog Yuri were refused service from a taxi driver at Melbourne airport.

“I’d just arrived in Melbourne for a holiday and wanted to get to where I was going, so to be outright refused from the first taxi driver I approached made me really annoyed and frustrated,” she said.

“I explained the access rights of a Guide Dog to the driver and it made no difference.

“I’m a reasonably confident person, but can imagine how shattering this would be for someone who is newly blind, or has only recently been placed with a Guide Dog.”

Ms Ransley has experienced numerous occasions of discrimination over the past few years, mostly when trying to access public transport, and believes it is not so much the law that is not understood, but the consequences of breaking it.

And while 100 per cent of Tasmanian respondents to the survey said they always carried their Guide Dog Access Card when accessing public places or services, 43 per cent said it had not helped.

“Sadly, I’ve never been in a situation where showing my access card has changed the person’s mind,” Ms Ransley said.

“I believe the only way to stop discrimination is to ensure those refusing or questioning you are aware that they could be fined, or even lose their job.”

To combat this and as part of the Access All Areas advocacy campaign, Guide Dogs Tasmania has a number of measures in place.

This includes:

Working one-on-one with individuals and businesses that have been accused of discrimination, educating them on the relevant access laws and penalties.

Sending information packs out to businesses to ensure all staff understand the relevant access laws and penalties.

Issuing all Tasmanian volunteer puppy raisers and Guide Dog handlers with “Say Yes” cards (business card sized) to hand out whenever they are questioned or refused entry to a public place or service, or when they see discrimination taking place.

Issuing all Tasmanian Guide Dog handlers with access cards that state the relevant law and penalties.

Bus driver training to ensure all new bus drivers in Tasmania understand the relevant law and penalties, and how to assist someone who is blind or vision impaired.

“We believe that education is the first step to stopping discrimination occurring again,” Ms Barnes said.

“And while most venues and service providers are doing the right thing, it is the minority that don’t that cause the most distress to our clients.

“We hope our Access All Areas campaign is a reminder to everyone that Guide Dogs are vital mobility tools for Tasmanians living with disability, giving them choice and helping them to remain independent.”

Caption: From left, Guide Dog handler Vanessa Ransley with her Guide Dog Yuri, State Cinema employees Bronte Scott and Emma Boyce, Guide Dog mobility instructor for Guide Dogs Tasmania Sean Cromwell, and training dogs Violet and Gilbert.