End Guide Dog Discrimination: 29 April 2015 by Dr Helen Watchirs

Good morning everyone and thank you to Guide Dogs NSW/ACT for opportunity for me to speak today as ACT Human Rights & Discrimination Commissioner about the need to end discrimination on International Guide Dog Day. I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners & custodians of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people. I respect their continuing culture & the contribution they make to the life of this city & this region. I pay my respects to elders past, present and future.

I am disappointed to hear that recent research shows that discrimination against Guide Dogs is still a problem when the laws are very clear that discrimination is unlawful, both under the Discrimination Act 1991 & the Domestic Animals Act 2000. Under the Discrimination Act it is unlawful to treat someone unfavourably because they have a trained assistance animal – we handle individual complaints through investigation & conciliation, and can achieve a binding Agreement with the force of a Tribunal order.

In my 11 years as Commissioner we have only received complaints against taxis, & provider companies are responsive to forcing drivers to obey the law when caught out, as well as training drivers about their responsibilities. The type of unlawful behaviour a barrier to enjoying daily life has been either driving right past a person with a Guide Dog or briefly stopping then leaving, or demanding that dogs be kept in the back of a station wagon. Under Agreements providers have agreed to raise awareness & monitor drivers, improve services (eg providing transport harnesses). At the personal level, drivers have apologised to complainants & promised that discrimination will never be repeated. I’d like to pay tribute to individuals who have taken the time & energy to lodge complaints, as it’s not just remedying their own case, but altruistically preventing future ones for others.

I’m concerned that the Commission is not receiving complaints about non-compliant restaurants & cafes, but am very pleased that the Cupping Room is hosting today’s event as a hospitality industry leader in best practice of welcoming Guide Dogs – congratulations to manager Jack Scheeren. If you are aware of unlawful behaviour in other cafes please tell the Commission so we can take action to enforce the law, as we have power to take ‘own motion’ investigations, without a complainant. We do not require the same level of criminal proof required for a fine of up to $1500 under the Domestic Animals Act, which should be reported to Police. We support the NSW Guide Dogs Access Rights Card to empower users, as well as posters, videos & social media targeting the food industry to educate cafes/restaurants so that they are aware of their legal responsibilities not to discriminate. I commit to the Commission funding a co-branded ACT version for both Guide Dog users and relevant businesses.

Thank you to people with vision impairments who have publicly told their stores, such as Stephen Fagg & Leonie Pye about the personal impact of discrimination, such as spoiling the outing, ruining the dining experience, reducing confidence, and causing stress and humiliation. It also undermines the critical role Guide Dogs play in opening up the world to people with vision impairments by staying safe & enabling independence –as Stephen said in today’s Canberra Times ‘Samson is my eyes & feet’. What we don’t want is people blocking access to services by unfair & unlawful discrimination.

I welcome the research performed by EY Sweeney Research by Guide Dogs NSW/ACT which found that more than 53% of Guide Dog clients faced discrimination in the past year, with the largest problem area being cafes & restaurants at 40%. We need the one case per week of discrimination that is occurring in the ACT & NSW reduced to zero – it’s time to end Guide Dog discrimination, as it’s been the law since 1991.