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Local Focus: Wairarapa guide dog handlers speak out on discrimination

An insight into the discrimination guide-dog handlers face. Donna Laing was thrown out of Masterton cafe Strada because of her guide dog...

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An insight into the discrimination guide-dog handlers face.

Donna Laing was thrown out of Masterton cafe Strada because of her guide dog Kenzie.

The social worker said a staff member asked her “very grumpily” to “get that dog out of here”.

Laing has no peripheral vision so did not see the staff member approaching as she was about to pay for her food.

“I turned around and looked and I said, ‘Oh, sorry, you know, she’s allowed to be in here, she’s a guide dog’,” Laing said.

“He got grumpier and said no, that ‘She has to get out, get that dog out of here’.”

Laing said she showed the card that all guide-dog handlers carry, explaining the law and rights of handlers to take their dogs everywhere.

“He took one glimpse at it and said ‘No, get her out, you can eat outside’.”

According to the Dog Control Act and Human Rights Act, if an individual is treated differently because they have a guide dog, this may be discrimination on the grounds of disability.

Businesses or landlords can find themselves liable for fines of up to $3000 if they refuse service, housing or transport to a guide-dog handler.

“It’s really hard being blind, and travelling around with a guide dog,” Laing said.

“I know that seeing a great big dog in a cafe can be challenging for people, but I need her.

“It’s the law, pure and simple.”

Laing has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease which causes cells in the retina to deteriorate over time, eventually leading to total loss of vision.

So she has had Kenzie by her side for five years and says she can’t get around without her.

“I do have a cane and I was trained in using a cane to start with.

“A cane is like travelling on a skateboard and using Kenzie is like travelling in a Mercedes, that’s the comparison.”

Strada owner Tanvi Patel apologised for the incident.

Patel said the staff member responsible wasn’t aware of the laws regarding guide dogs and that she was now ensuring that all staff were educated.

Patel said she values all customers and wants them to be comfortable in the cafe.

She also suggested that councils should educate local businesses on guide-dog laws to avoid problems occurring.

Greytown guide-dog handler Jo Taukomo said in situations like these people could feel vulnerable and disempowered.

He suffered visual impairment from Leber’s optic atrophy since he was 19 and has had guide dog Ankie for 10 months.

He said he missed body-language cues when confronted.

“However, I do pick up on the tone of their voices when we go into these businesses.

“It can mean the difference between me communicating with these people or being defensive.

“In my experience when people have said no you can tell straight away that they’re not willing to listen.

“That’s one of the most disappointing things that we’ve had when going into businesses.”

Reasons for people needing guide dogs vary from epilepsy to neurodivergence, but most guide dogs assist people with blindness.

Blind Low Vision NZ estimates 180,000 Kiwis live with severe to moderate vision loss and 18,200 use fully-trained guide dogs.

Manager of training operations Wendy Mellberg Haecker said training puppies to become guide dogs was intense.

“It’s kind of like these dogs are going to university,” she said.

Blind Low Vision NZ is one of eight certified disability-assist dog organisations.

They breed their own labradors and send them to volunteer homes for the first 15 months where they are socialised and taught basic good behaviour.

“That’s the most important part of the puppy-raising programme, to be able to go out into the public, for it to be normal for them to go into cafes and shops and airports, ride on buses and trains.”

The puppies then return to Blind Low Vision’s kennels in South Auckland for more intensive training.

“We ask our dogs to really ignore what it is just to be a dog,” Haecker said.

“There’s no picking food up off the ground, there’s no visiting with other dogs on the walk, there’s no taking food from people.

“So we really ask them to ignore their basic instincts, to be a guide dog.

“It’s a big, big job for a dog.”

Because of the level of trust put into a guide dog, it needed a very sound temperament.

“They actually have someone’s safety in their paws, if you will.

“Typically in the guide-dog world we see about a 35 to 40 per cent success rate from birth to actually becoming a qualified guide dog.

“It’s a lot of resource for a small success rate in the end, but that’s just the way it goes.”

Blind Low Vision NZ uses guide-dog mobility instructors to educate businesses unaware of the law protecting guide-dog handlers.

Haecker said cultural differences were sometimes a factor.

“People coming from other parts of the world, where dogs are not seen the way they’re seen here in New Zealand, can have an effect on whether they think a dog is allowed inside a cafe or not.”

She said rejection from a business was humiliating at least.

“Suddenly this person is being pointed out as someone who doesn’t belong, who isn’t welcome.

“There are other times that it can actually affect people’s livelihood.

“If they’re expecting a taxi to pick them up and the taxi rolls up, see that person has a guide dog and refuses service, that person maybe doesn’t get to work on time.

“Same with buses. I personally experienced this as someone who trains guide dogs. A bus passed me by when they saw I had a guide dog.

“And so you’re standing there stranded.

“It can affect your safety.”



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