Imagine you were turned away from a shop, restaurant or pub or ordered a taxi to take you home only to be told by the driver that you weren’t welcome.
How would you feel? Angry? Humiliated? Hurt?
That’s the reality faced by many guide dog owners on an increasingly regular basis.
Despite the Equality Act 2010 making it illegal for a taxi or minicab driver to refuse to carry an assistance dog, Guide Dogs for the Blind Association UK research found that 42 per cent of people living with sight loss were turned away last year because of their guide dog.
The most common type of access refusal faced by guide dog owners comes from taxi and private hire drivers.
It has prevented people from getting to work, visiting friends and doing everyday things that most people take for granted.
Under the law, taxi and minicab drivers who illegally turn away assistance dog owners can have their licence removed or be fined up to £1000.
However, Guide Dogs discovered fines handed down to offenders were, in fact, much smaller – as little as £50 to £100 – and prosecutions rare.
The charity’s research also uncovered that 38 per cent of assistance dog owners have illegally been asked to pay an extra fare for carrying their dog.
Despite the distress caused by illegal access refusals, fines issued to drivers who say no to guide dogs are no higher than those given to people who dodge train fares or evade TV licences.
And, to date, no prosecutions have been brought in Scotland.
Among the most common reasons given by drivers for refusing to carry an assistance dog are that they don’t like dogs or believe the dogs will be dirty.
Megan, a guide dog owner from Glasgow, said: “It makes me feel frustrated, sad, and as if I am a second class citizen.
“I had a particularly upsetting experience when I booked a taxi to pick me up for work but the driver hadn’t arrived 15 minutes later.
“I kept calling to ask where my taxi was but the operator kept hanging up when he heard my voice.
“I felt stranded and really humiliated – all because I had an assistance dog.”
James White, senior campaigns manager at Guide Dogs, explained that Megan’s experience is an all too common occurance.
“Imagine you were turned away by a driver,” he said.
“This happens to people living with sight loss with shocking regularity just because they are accompanied by a guide dog.
“ It’s not only illegal, it knocks people’s confidence.
“Guide dog owners, like all assistance dog owners, rely on their dogs to feel confident and supported.
“Being turned away by a business leaves people feeling angry, upset and embarrassed.
“It can rob people of their independence and can leave them unable – and even unwilling – to attempt everyday activities such as travelling by taxi, going to the shops or eating out with their friends or family.
“Despite legal protection across most of the UK, guide dog and other assistance dog owners are still experiencing this form of discrimination every day. It needs to change.
“We want tougher sentences for drivers who turn away assistance dog owners. We would also like to see the introduction of disability awareness training for all taxi and minicab drivers across Britain.”
Guide Dogs is calling for disability equality training to be made a requirement for all taxi and minicab drivers to help them understand the rights and needs of disabled people.
James continued: “Licensing authorities and magistrates aren’t effectively using the powers they have to prosecute taxi and minicab drivers who flout the law.
“In most cases drivers are simply given a warning and, on the rare occasions the cases go to court, fines are woefully inadequate.
“We want taxi licensing authorities to use their existing powers more effectively and fine levels to be increased to £2500 to reflect the level of distress caused by taxi refusals.”
Guide Dogs also wants disability equality training, not just for taxi and minicab drivers but for all staff who work in businesses who deal with members of the public.
James added: “What should guide dog owners who are turned away from a taxi or another business do?
“As a first step they should contact their local mobility team who will be able to offer advice on next steps.”
At a Westminster event last December, guide dog owners explained how taxi and minicab drivers had refused to carry them. And MPs from across Scotland have shown their support.
Kirsten Oswald MP said: “I welcome the call for more accessible taxis in Scotland and any moves to provide disability equality training.”
For more information on the Access All Areas campaign, visit www.guidedogs.org.uk.