I don’t have a guide dog, because I can see well enough not to need one. But I have many friends who do use them, and I would certainly consider applying for one if my sight ever deteriorated to a level where it might be useful. They are the most beautiful and amazing animals, and I have a lot of respect and admiration for them, and for those who train and use them. They aren’t just pets, they’re a real lifeline to their owners, enabling so much freedom and independence.
And yet, sadly, there are still people out there who don’t understand or respect guide dogs or the blind people who need them – something which has, yet again, become clear in the past few days.
A young lady called Holly was refused access to a restaurant this week, purely because she has a guide dog. She was able to capture a video of the incident, which has since gone viral, even making national publications like the BBC News and the Daily Mail.
I also saw another story recently about a blind woman and her guide dog being refused entry into a supermarket. And there are countless other instances of guide dog owners being treated in this way, they are not isolated cases. It may seem like a petty thing to some people, but it does need talking about regularly to keep raising awareness of it.
Such refusals of access by businesses are against the law, here in the UK and in many other countries. And discrimination has to be reported and highlighted. The reasons for that are explained very well in this blog post by Elin at See My Way, so I’m not digging into the legal side of things here. The restaurant was in the wrong, they broke the law, and ignorance is no excuse. It’s a basic legal requirement that’s been in place for a very long time now.
The fact that such discrimination still occurs is disturbing and disappointing. But it’s unfortunately not surprising when you see some of the responses Holly’s video has received. The vast majority of people are supportive and quite rightly angry. But a significant number are unsympathetic and don’t understand why guide dogs are so vitally important, apparently not caring if disabled people are treated less favourably than anyone else. Yet we all know they would get just as upset and frustrated if, heaven forbid, they became disabled themselves one day and faced similar problems.
There’s nothing wrong with asking questions if you don’t understand things, as taking a respectful interest in disability issues is fine and welcomed. But the manner in which many of the questions have been asked has not been kind, accusing Holly of being too entitled or even faking it, neither of which is true. If you have no experience of being in her position, or have not closely and regularly interacted with people like her, or haven’t done proper research into it, then you have no basis for any accusations.
Most of the complaints about Holly’s story seem to be from people saying things like…
Why does the dog have to be in the restaurant? It doesn’t help her to read the menu or eat her meal! Dogs aren’t hygienic either, so it should be tied up outside like any other dog. And nobody else is allowed to bring their pets in anyway, so aren’t they being discriminated against too?
Remarks like this completely miss the point:
- Normal pets don’t need to be by their owner’s side at all times, because they don’t have a job to do. They’re a friend to keep the owner company, and that’s it.
- Guide dogs (and other service dogs) are NOT pets. The relationship between a guide dog and its owner is a very special one, developed through extensive training. It takes a lot of time and effort to be matched and trained with a suitable dog, as explained in the excellent video from Fashioneyesta below.
There are many blind people who are happy to use a long cane instead, and that’s fine. But it has its limitations, and many blind people need the additional support that a dog provides. Not all blind people are able to have a dog, e.g. for health reasons or an unsuitable home environment, so have no choice but to use a cane. But for those who can, and do, have a dog, it’s a valuable lifeline.
As far as having a guide dog in a restaurant is concerned, it has nothing to do with eating. That shouldn’t really need saying. Dogs can’t actually behave like this:
Guide dogs help blind people to navigate their surroundings safely, both indoors and outdoors. So, taking Holly as our example – if she’s in a restaurant and wants to walk to her table, the bar, the toilet, the exit, etc, then she needs her guide dog to stop her tripping on steps or walking into tables, chairs, pillars, walls, doors, windows, people, etc. Otherwise she’ll be stumbling in the dark. It doesn’t matter if she has a sighted friend with her, as that won’t always be the case when she goes out – blind people go out on their own and with other blind people too. And it’s not up to the already-busy staff to do lots of hands-on guiding either. Blind people want to, need to, and have every right to, do things independently as much as possible.
The guide dog must therefore stay by Holly’s side at all times, so she knows where it is whenever she needs it. It’s useless to her outside, where it would also be at real risk from distraction and harm which the owner would have no control over (feeding and petting by others without permission, distraction by other dogs, etc). The dog has to be 100% focused on its owner, otherwise it cannot assist her safely. So it has to stay with her. It will just lay down next to her quietly until she commands otherwise, as it’s been trained that way. And it won’t be dirty – its health and well-being has to be well-maintained, because of the vital job it does. And it won’t be in the food preparation areas anyway.
In other words, there was no good reason to prevent Holly and her dog from being in the restaurant. They won’t do anyone any harm. If someone has a guide dog in a restaurant and you really don’t want to be near them due to a dog allergy or phobia or whatever, then don’t sit next to them. There will usually be other places in the establishment where you can sit if it bothers you that much. That isn’t discrimination against you – allergies can often be helped with treatment and medication, whereas Holly can’t do anything to improve her sight. She needs her dog with her.
At the end of the day, guide dogs help blind people massively, enabling the owner to feel a lot safer, happier, more independent and more confident. Everyone needs to respect that.
The other issue that keeps coming up is…
How could she film it in the first place? Blind people can’t use smartphones or cameras!
Actually, yes they can. Blind people can use modern smartphones very well. It takes a bit of practice initially, sure, but it’s not difficult once you’re used to it.
It may seem odd to think of a blind person using a touch-screen, where they can’t feel any buttons. But there’s very good speech software built into the operating systems of many popular smartphones these days, which helps a lot. The iPhone, for instance, has a speech system called Voiceover, which reads things on the screen to you (the same feature is also on their iPad tablets, Macbook laptops, iMac desktop computers, etc). This is in addition to Siri, which you can talk to.
So navigating the phone’s menu system isn’t really a problem. The more you use it, the more you understand where everything is, so you can go to things much more quickly over time.
So it would only have taken a few seconds for Holly to open the menu screen, select the camera, select video mode and start recording. That’s no more than 4 button presses. Or it may have been even less if she used the shortcut on the lock screen. In the very bottom-right corner of the lock screen is a camera icon. By swiping your thumb upwards from there, you can open the camera immediately. So Holly may have done that.
Because you don’t have to unlock the iPhone to use that shortcut, you’re not allowed to access your existing photos or videos when opening the camera in that way. You will still need your passcode or fingerprint to get that far. So nobody can use that shortcut to see your private files. But anything you record via that shortcut will still be added to your library as normal, for you to access later.
Ah, but if she can’t see the screen or the people around her, how did she frame the shot so we could see the staff?
That’s quite easy too. She doesn’t need to see the screen. She already knows exactly where people’s voices are coming from, so she can face them. She can also tell which way up the phone is and what angle it’s at, because she can feel it in her hand. So as long as she keeps it at roughly the same vertical angle as her body, then whoever is in front of her is very likely to be in shot. If the person is just a footstep in front of her, then she angle the phone upwards very slightly to try and get their face.
It’s not going to be perfect, because Holly can’t see what she’s capturing, and her video reflects that fact. People are either off-centre or have the tops of their heads cut off slightly, and there are a couple of very brief moments where there’s nobody in the shot at all. But that’s completely irrelevant. It was a quick recording made to the capture the moment, and it did that perfectly. That’s all it needed to do.
But was it necessary to post it online? The restaurant have apologised, yet they’re still being bombarded with negative feedback and abuse from people. What about their business and the stress it must be putting on their families?
It was necessary to post it, to highlight the fact that this kind of discrimination is still going on. It’s quite rare that we see first-hand evidence of it happening, so the fact that it’s been posted and has got a lot of people talking about it is a great thing.
It isn’t nice that the restaurant is getting flooded with angry feedback as a consequence, but it was inevitable. They had to be made aware of how upsetting their actions were People were never going to sit back and take this kind of thing lightly – social media is incredibly powerful, and once a storm starts, you can’t really stop it.
The restaurant hasn’t helped itself in the way it’s reacted either. In particular, they started by making a number of excuses, changing their story along the way – not knowing the law, falsely claiming a member of staff was a trainee, and bizarrely suggesting that Holly should have been wearing a card around her neck saying she was blind. Even though they’ve retracted some of those comments (about the trainee and the labelling), the internet will always remember what was said.
The restaurant has made a number of apologies about it. They are clearly very upset to have caused such distress, and now fully understand that guide dogs must be allowed in. The owner has also been in touch with a local guide dog association and made a donation of £1,000, according to this article.
They’re good steps, but the damage has already been done, given the original incident and the way they reacted to it. It has also become apparent that they were given a very poor hygiene rating in December, and they were already getting a fair number of bad reviews on TripAdvisor well before this incident. So their reputation was already on shaky ground. Their latest apology on Facebook hasn’t helped either. They’ve used a picture of a girl and her guide dog at the restaurant, apparently happy customers – but the girl isn’t Holly, and it’s not clear if the girls in the photo knew it would be used for publicity purposes. The restaurant might be trying a little too hard to restore their pride there.
Can the business survive this? Maybe. Should they? That’s a matter of debate. They certainly do have to move on. But they should still be fined, because they did break the law – it’s pointless having the law there if it isn’t enforced, otherwise it sets a bad example. They also need to discuss things with Holly properly, in person, to try and resolve things to her satisfaction. Beyond that, they have an awful lot of work to do to restore their reputation, if they ever do. A lot of people will never forgive them and will never give the restaurant their custom, and the internet is now littered with negative material about them. If they have enough supportive customers to keep them going and can significantly improve their equality and hygiene standards, then they could potentially pull through this. But it will be very difficult, and this incident will haunt them for a very long time.
Whatever happens, hopefully the lessons from this extend far beyond that one restaurant. I hope it’s made other businesses sit up and take notice, to ensure they understand the law. Now they can see the impact it has, they should want to do all they can to avoid such negative publicity happening to them. And I hope more members of the general public understand how important guide dogs are, and how important accessibility is to disabled people in general.
This whole episode won’t improve things for all disabled people overnight, but it has raised awareness of the issues at hand, which is essential. If it causes at least some businesses and individuals to pay more attention to their treatment and judgements of the disabled, it will have been entirely worthwhile, and Holly’s experience will not have been in vain.
As Stevie Wonder said at the Grammys this year, everything needs to be accessible for people with disabilities. Let’s hope that’s true one day, so we don’t need to have so many discussions and campaigns about it. We shouldn’t be talking like this in the 21st century.