During a long train journey, a mother came over and asked if her son could say hello to Chloe. She explained that her son had spent most of his life in hospital and had never met a cat. Of course, I said yes.
The young lad came over, and I explained how to introduce yourself to a cat — place your open hand in front of them and let them come to you. During the journey, he said hello to Chloe four times. Each time, she responded with a friendly meow. I’m glad his first experience with a cat was good.
The most common response to Chloe is amazement and awe. People expect her to be crawling the walls in an attempt to escape. Instead, she sits in the same place for hours, causing no bother to anyone.
Unfortunately, we have also faced discrimination:
- A bus passenger sitting behind Chloe and I suddenly struck out at her with a newspaper.
- Access to a hotel was initially denied on the basis of staff having allergies and a fear of cats. The hotel relented after being reminded of their duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010.
- A fellow train passenger complained about Chloe being with me and sniggered when he was advised that she is an assistance animal. Unfortunately, the train employee did nothing to end the discrimination.
- Following this incident, two train companies claimed Chloe must be an emotional support animal and that they were unwilling to let Chloe travel in her harness because the National Rail Conditions of Travel state that cats must be kept in a carrier. She is not an emotional support animal and as a disabled passenger, I am entitled to reasonable adjustments. The discussion is ongoing.
Of course, the users of assistance dogs have been dealing with discrimination for years. Three-quarters of owners surveyed by the charity Guide Dogs say they are regularly refused access to restaurants, shops or public transport. Discrimination is likely to be even more common for those with autism assistance dogs as the breeds used tend to differ from the Labrador, Golden retriever or German shepherd stereotype that members of the public expect.
Another kind of discrimination is that which filters down through official channels. For example, the constant references to ‘assistance dogs’ in official guidance documents implying that only assistance dogs have rights even though the law relates to the disabled person rather than the species of their auxiliary aid.
Then we have official policies that lead with cat stereotypes. For example, the ‘Animals on Hospital Premises Policy’ for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Gateshead states:
While there are some cats that have become qualified PAT cats, the nature and behaviour of the cat makes it an unsuitable visitor in any capacity. Cats make great pets and can be highly affectionate and people-orientated. They are however, territorial rather than social creatures, and do not cope well being taken to new environments. Their instinct when stressed is primarily to take flight. Bringing a cat into the hospital risks causing it stress and risking its escape, and possible harm to itself and others. In the interests of their welfare, cats, whether PAT cats or pet cats, are not permitted into the hospital unless under exceptional circumstances. In such instances, the temperament of the cat and how it reacts to novel environments and travelling should be considered and should only be brought in a secure carrier. The cat should only be let out in a closed room with no possibility for escape should it panic.
While the policy does allow for exceptional circumstances, it plays up the negatives of some cats while downplaying the same for dogs, some of which can also be territorial. The inference is that it would need to be an exceptional exception for a cat to visit, but this would not be the case for a dog.
What to do if you feel you have been discriminated against
- Write a letter of complaint – see Challenging discrimination using the Equality Act (RNIB)
- Write a letter before action – see the Equality Advisory Support Service letter templates
- Collect evidence – is CCTV available? Send a Subject Access Request (Disability Justice)
- Seek legal advice
Sources of advice
- Equality Advisory Support Service
- Disability Justice Project
- Disability Rights UK
- Reasonable Access
- Fry Law
- National Rail Conditions of Travel (National Rail Enquiries)
- Animals on Hospital Premises Policy (Queen Elizabeth Hospital Gateshead) [PDF]
- Shut out due to sight loss: Three in four guide dog owners illegally refused service (Guide Dogs)
- Newsagent who threw autistic 11-year-old boy and his assistance dog out of his shop because of ‘no dogs’ policy is fined £22,000 for discrimination (Daily Mail, sorry)
- Basingstoke mum told her service dog ‘isn’t real’ as she’s refused access to supermarket (Basingstoke Gazette)
- Autistic Scots woman ‘humiliated’ after Greggs made her leave shop over assistance chihuahua (Daily Record)
- Blind Manchester student ‘told his guide dog cannot enter a Burger King’ (The Manchester Tab)
- Hospital facing court action after banning assistance dog (Disability News Service)
- Blind woman shocked and humiliated after restaurants refuse guide dogs entry (SWLondoner)
- ‘I was really upset’ – taxi refused to take guide dog and his owner (itv news)