NEARLY half of Guide Dog owners have been denied access to shops, taxis or services in the last year, a charity has warned.
The Guide Dogs organisation says Cheryl Johnson’s experience at being refused a taxi in Preston is sadly not an unusual experience.
Taxi driver Zabar Hussain is the first cabbie in Lancashire to be fined under the Equality Act for refusing to take Cheryl home.
Guide Dogs’ engagement officer Emma Allen-Taylor said: “Almost half of guide dog owners surveyed have experienced an access refusal in the last year. We’re campaigning so that assistance dog owners can access taxis, shops and restaurants without being refused entry, in line with their legal rights.
“A taxi refusal can be crushing and destroy a person’s confidence, they are inexcusable and illegal. As part of Guide Dogs Access all Areas Campaign, we are calling for tougher penalties for taxi drivers who refuse to take a person with an assistance dog and compulsory disability training for all taxi drivers.”
Cheryl, 45, from Walton Avenue in Penwortham, was refused a ride home when Hussain, who arrived at Preston’s mobility centre to pick her up, spotted her Labrador guide dog, Thelma.
The father-of-six, who claimed in court he came out in a rash when confronted with dogs, admitted a breach of the Equality Act. Preston magistrates ordered Hussain, 44, of Oozehead Lane, Blackburn, to pay a £55 fine, a £20 victim surcharge and £250 costs.
Cheryl said: “Sadly, this is what we in the Guide Dog community have to live with on a daily basis.
“It was a week and a half before Christmas, it was cold and my phone battery had ran out so I made my way to the mobility centre to ask them to help call a taxi.
“He pulled up and pipped his horn. I was helped to load my shopping in the car. Suddenly, he shouted: “They never said a dog, you never told them.”
“We don’t have to tell taxi firms we have a dog but I always do out of courtesy.
“He said something like he was allergic and would have to take time off work to cover himself in cream.
“I said he was breaking the law refusing to take me. Taxi drivers can get an exemption certificate for dogs but he did not have one.
“I think he just wanted to take on more money making fares in the city centre because it was Christmas.
“Guide dogs users have it drummed into us to challenge things like this so I pulled him up on it.”
Another cabbie swiftly arrived as New City Taxis were alerted of the situation, and took Cheryl, who also has a lung disorder, home with Thelma.
She recalls: “This put quite a bit of stress on me. I think many cabbies don’t have the knowledge of what wonderful things guide dogs can do.
“I think all taxi drivers need awareness and should be made to go to local dog training centre as part of their licence conditions.”
Dave Lowe, senior licensing officer at Preston Council, which brought the prosecution, said he was was pleased at securing a conviction.
It is understood Cheryl’s was the third complaint in the last six months. The first victim did not wish to pursue the case, and the second, which involved a phone operator saying the firm did not take dogs, led to a taxi operator being given a warning. The firm sacked the worker.
Mr Lowe said: “It’s our policy any licensed driver convicted of a criminal offence will have their licence looked at.
“The council has a scheme to protect drivers in certain scenarios like dog allergies as drivers can apply for an exemption.
“Mrs Johnson has every right to access public transport like anyone else. Her highly trained guide dog is trained to sit in a footwell.
“She’s been very unfairly treated which is why we took him to court.”