Source: ABC News (Extract)
Posted: June 8, 2023

When Janice Whittle filmed an interaction with a hotel staff member asking her to leave because of her guide dog, she didn’t expect to find herself explaining the law again in a Toowoomba cafe 24 hours later.

“It’s not a one-off thing,” she explained.

“I had a taxi driver fined for refusing access to myself and my guide dog just a week before.

“And then, after the hotel incident on Friday, I went to a cafe for breakfast on Saturday and I was refused entry in there.”

Ms Whittle is legally blind and takes her guide dog Keegan everywhere.

She said the incidents had taken their toll.

Guide dogs and their handlers are legally allowed to go almost anywhere under the Hearing and Assistance Dog Act 2009.

But Guide Dogs Queensland said in a 2022 survey, over a third of its members reported being refused service at least once over a 12-month period.

Ms Whittle said she was questioned far too often, and even refused service, because of her guide dog.

“I can’t make sense of it — I thought everyone would know that guide dogs are legal,” she said.

“We can take them everywhere we go, except … three or four places.”

Those places include ambulances and certain parts of hospitals, including labour wards.

But in most other areas, guide dogs and their handlers are allowed.

Penalties for preventing a person with a guide dog from entering a public place, public passenger vehicle, or place of accommodation can be up to $11,000.

Public ‘allies’ needed

Joyce Jones, a member of Dog Guide Handlers Australia, said Ms Whittle’s experience was not confined to Toowoomba or other regional towns.

“I’ve had many refusals,” she said.

“I’ve been denied access to shopping centres, taxis and buses — it’s a common occurrence.”

She said it was aggravating and embarrassing, and such interactions made guide dog handlers feel disempowered.

“If we’re on our own … we can’t give a number plate or anything like that,” she said.

“And if we’re in a shop, it embarrasses us in front of everybody else, and then we just have to argue the best we can.”

She believes there needs to be more education about the rights of assistance dogs and their handlers.

“By and large, the public supports guide dogs — and donate very generously to their provision — but there are always pockets of ignorance that we just have to keep working on,” she said.

Hotel, cafe apologise

The hotel in Toowoomba has offered an apology to Ms Whittle, promising “this won’t happen again” in a Facebook post.

The cafe told the ABC a staff member initially mistook the guide dog for a pet and the manager apologised to Ms Whittle after they realised the mistake, offering her a seat inside.

“Refresher training has now been conducted for all staff on recognising patrons with guide dogs,” a spokesperson said.

In a statement, Queensland Human Rights Commissioner Scott McDougall said the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act meant people with disability, including people who relied on assistance animals, should not be discriminated against in areas such as work, school, and when seeking accommodation, or goods and services.

“The commission receives a small number of complaints each year from people with assistance dogs – although based on what we hear from the community, the number of complaints is not representative of the scale of the problem,” he said.

“We find that mostly when these complaints are brought to us we are able to help the parties resolve them, and that many people do use that exercise as a genuine opportunity to learn and become more inclusive where they can.

“But the more awareness among businesses and their staff about their obligations, the more likely it is that these issues can be avoided in the first place.”

Since April 2021, Ms Whittle has lodged 12 complaints with the Human Rights Commission.

“But I just want to be like everybody else. I just want to be able to walk into a shopping centre or a supermarket or a hotel without being hassled and threatened — that’s all I asked for.”