The viral video of a blind man being berated on the tube is a sad indication of what life can be like if you’re visually impaired.
When I first saw the footage of a man trying to barge past Kika the guide dog and her handler on a London Underground escalator, I was saddened but not surprised. Last week, I qualified with my second guide dog, Digit. It’s been almost two years since my first dog, Watson, retired. Working with Digit has reminded me just how much I’ve missed having a guide dog to help me get around, yet the footage made me nervous about the potential altercations I may encounter.
Over the years, I’ve faced a number of access issues when trying to go about my life. Before we moved to Morecambe, Lancashire, my wife and I visited for a weekend break and went to a pub that had an upstairs restaurant. We ordered a drink and set off for the dining room, only to be told that we could not take the guide dog into the restaurant without the barman ringing his boss (he was under the impression that his boss would say no on account of other diners’ potential allergies). As an alternative, he told us we could eat in the bar.
We wanted to eat in the dining room, which had large windows overlooking the bay, rather than in the bar, which was rather gloomy. I should explain that I’m not blind – I’m severely visually impaired. I have no useful vision in my left eye and a small amount of central vision in my right. Without peripheral vision, I’m unable to see in dim light. Fumbling around with my food was not my idea of a relaxing meal so we decided to leave, upset and frustrated by the experience.
Another couple who were about to order food also left in protest. They didn’t know us but had witnessed our conversations with the barman – they even left negative reviews of the place on a few well-known websites. The actions of these strangers filled me with hope; it seemed like it was just an ignorant barman at fault.
Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done. When I had Watson, I worked as a journalist in West Yorkshire and had an active social life living in Leeds. But I felt my confidence in getting around decline over time due to the attitudes of others. Taxi drivers and private hire firms were among the worst culprits. The number of times I found myself turned away with my dog was disheartening. I have vivid memories of being stranded in the rain at midnight on Armley Town Street in Leeds when a taxi driver drove off after refusing to pick us up. Like Kika’s owner, I began filming my experiences when I was faced with discrimination – in this instance the footage was helpful when I complained to the licensing authorities.
There were also times when drivers begrudgingly let me into their cabs, but spent the entire journey letting me know what an inconvenience it was and how they would have to clean hairs off the seat. If you think that’s inconvenient, you should try being visually impaired, mate.
I have found a lot of pubs and restaurants use bogus health and safety excuses to stop guide dogs from entering. Once, an Italian restaurant in Penrith said it would only accommodate us if we sat outside – and it wasn’t a warm night. But we did not go hungry. We ate elsewhere and had a problem-free experience. In the grand scheme of things these incidents, while inconvenient and irritating, are not something I lose sleep over. However, I cannot deny that they start to get to you when you face them so regularly. Whenever you go out, there is an expectation of some kind of confrontation in relation to access.
The good news is that the public mostly seem to be on board, and when access issues do arise, they often jump in on behalf of the guide dog and, it must be said, the law. Nine times out of 10 I go about my day problem-free. Most businesses are welcoming and are as happy to take my money as the next one.
If the video of the impatient commuter has shown us anything, it’s that the majority of people recognise that causing needless distress to someone with a disability is a bad move.
Guide dogs change people’s lives, giving visually impaired and blind people a level of independence that isn’t possible with a white cane. I’m glad the video of Kika’s experiences went viral as we need to normalise disabled people’s rights to be in public spaces without being made to feel like an inconvenience.
This feature is written by Jon Cronshaw and originally appeared in The Guardian.