Groundhog Day

20 06 2009

I am deaf and to assist me, I chose to have a hearing dog. A hearing dog is classified as a registered assistance dog with Assistance Dogs UK (ADUK), whereby hearing dogs should be afforded the same access to public places as guide dogs. With the DDA now in place, service providers need to show they are compliant with the regulations. But are they complying, or merely paying lip service?

I went into a large local supermarket with my hearing dog Smudge. It’s not my favourite store, but it’s on my way to work and handy to pop in to. As always, my dog was wearing his official purple working coat which specifically states “Hearing Dog for Deaf People” in bright white lettering on the side, and a white ADUK logo on the top. You can’t miss the dog (he’s beautiful!) and you can’t miss the coat either.

Whilst I was shopping, a store assistant approached me, and told me that dogs were not allowed in the store. I explained to him that my dog is a “Hearing Dog for Deaf People” which is a registered assistance dog like guide dogs for blind people. He enables me to get around more safely. The assistant did not believe my explanation and insisted that I leave the store. I requested to speak with the manager and he referred me to one of his colleagues (who, obviously, was not the manager). He also told me to leave. I explained again, that my dog is not a pet, but an assistance dog. I once again requested to speak with the manager.

This second person took me to another person, who turned out to be the security officer! The security officer ordered me to go outside. I refused and explained yet again that my dog is an assistance dog and deserves the same treatment that applies to guide dogs for the blind, and that they are allowed by law into all food stores in the UK. He would not listen. I requested, yet again, to speak to the manager.

I was taken to this lady who turned out to be, from what I could gather, the Customer Services Supervisor. I explained again about my dog. I produced the official identity cards which I hold for my dog: one certifying that he is a trained hearing dog, and one from Hearing Dogs for Deaf People with a statement from the Institute of Environmental Health Officers which says,

Hearing Dogs are allowed entry to restaurants, supermarkets and other food premises. Their very special training means they are not a risk to hygiene in such premises.

I showed these cards to her and she obviously had not a dippy clue about access rights for assistance dogs and did not believe me. I requested that she contact Asda Head Office and confirm my rights and the appropriate treatment of my assistance dog. In the meantime, all the other staff involved were standing there and staring at me and even laughing at me. It was horrible treatment which was extremely offensive. I had done nothing wrong, except to be unfortunate enough to have a disability!

This lady returned after making her phone call and confirmed that my hearing dog was allowed into the store, and I was allowed to continue with my shopping, albeit very unhappy with the contemptible treatment I had received.

Is it my responsibility to train their staff in diversity awareness? No. It is their responsibility as a service provider to have equality and diversity procedures and policies implemented across the company, and to ensure that members of staff at all levels comply with requirements at all times. I had gone into this particular store in January (without my hearing dog) and spoken to the floor supervisor about disability access, and explained the situation. She had assured me that she would inform all staff and at my next visit – with my dog – she came up to me and informed me she had told all the staff. Unfortunately, she seems to have missed out on at least the Customer Services Supervisor, the Security Officer and two members of staff.

So I wrote to Asda’s CEO and Diversity Manager, and told them what had happened. I told them that I felt aggrieved and very upset at such discrimination against me, for reasons relating to my disability. That I did not want to encounter any further barriers preventing me from having full access to all goods, facilities and services on offer. That it is unacceptable for restrictions to be placed upon me due to the attitudinal barriers on the part of staff who are dealing with me.

Did you know?

  • Under the DDA it is unlawful for a person with a disability to be discriminated against, or treated less favourably, because of their disability.
  • The Act requires all employers and service providers covered by the DDA to take steps in applying reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities.
  • The Act requires that people providing goods, services or facilities, and owners and managers of premises, should comply with the requirements.
  • In addition, the Act includes an anticipatory duty on providers. They should work with disabled people to explore what reasonable adjustments can be implemented.

I had no reply from Asda.

Two months later, I went into the store again, accompanied by my hearing dog, wearing his working coat. I did my shopping and as I was about to leave the store, a security guard approached me and told me dogs were not allowed on the premises. I requested his name and he refused to give it to me. Eventually, one of the assistants gave me his name. I was apologised to by staff and told that it would not be a problem to bring my hearing dog into the store if he wore his coat when he came in.

Can you believe this?!!

I explained that he does wear his coat every time he comes into the shop and that despite this, I have been stopped on numerous occasions. I was then told that the security guard had seen the dog but did not see the coat. Huh! I was so annoyed, an assistant came over to me and tried to give me a bunch of flowers and apologise. I don’t want apologies or sodding flowers, I want things to be PUT RIGHT.

I fail to understand why someone can’t see a hearing dog’s coat as the coat is almost the same size as the dog and clearly visible, it has a white assistance dogs logo on the top, and Hearing Dogs for Deaf People written in large white letters on the coat. Am I expected to explain to staff that I can’t hear and the reason for the assistance dog every time I come into an Asda store? Am I expected to walk around with a placard explaining why I’ve got a dog with me in a food store? Or hand out flyers? As a disability awareness trainer, I’d be very interested to know of the current ways of training staff that companies utilise these days, as I seem to be completely out of touch.

Clearly, no action had been taken since I wrote to Asda so I wrote to the CEO and the Diversity Manager again. This time, it was a much longer letter. During my research when writing this letter, I discovered some interesting information. Asda’s diversity strategy is clearly outlined on their website, where it states;

At Asda, each of our stores offers a wide range of disability and family–friendly services, and all of our colleagues are fully trained to help make the shopping experience as easy as possible. From the Braille guns we use on packaging, and our hearing loops and Minicom text service, to the baby changing facilities with free nappies and feeding rooms — we aim to make our stores accessible to all.

Obviously their staff have not been fully trained, as they claim. They constantly make my shopping experience inaccessible. My hearing dog cannot be left outside the store for their convenience. He is fully trained to Institute of Environmental Health standards and to Assistance Dogs UK standards.

Their website stated they are Two Ticks accredited by JobCentre Plus for being positive about disabled people, they are a partner of choice for Remploy, and that they aim to treat all customers exactly the same;

We aim to treat every member of our diverse team exactly the same — and our customers too for that matter — regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnic origin, age, beliefs or whether they have a disability. Career opportunities and promotions at Arseda are based entirely on merit.
In fact, we’ve been awarded the two–tick disability symbol from Job Centre plus for making sure that people with disabilities are fully supported in the working environment. And we are also the proud partner of choice for Remploy, the organisation that helps overcome barriers to employment for disabled people.

I wonder does their policy exclude people with assistance dogs? Making a branch accessible is as simple as telling all the staff that work there about access rights for disabled people and their assistance dogs, whether those dogs be a guide dog for the blind, a hearing dog for deaf people, a dog for the disabled, a support dog, a canine partner, or a dual purpose guide and hearing dog.

I question the value of their membership of the Employer’s Forum on Disability (EFD). The EFD’s agenda on customers states, under ‘Policy and top level commitment’;

Service to disabled customers will form an integral part of the company’s product and service standards. A company-wide policy will be agreed by the top team and communicated to the rest of the company.

The service to disabled customers at Asda is clearly not up to the expected high standards of service given to non-disabled customers. Why has their company policy on services to disabled customers not been communicated to this Asda branch’s staff? Has such policy been communicated to other Asda branches?

The EFD’s agenda on customers states, under ‘Staff training and disability awareness’;

Specific steps will be taken to raise awareness of disability among employees involved in developing, marketing and delivering products and services to customers. Training will be made available to communicate service standards and to equip employees to achieve these.

Uh. When? Where? I would be most interested to know what steps were taken to raise awareness of deafness and hearing dogs among the employees involved in delivering products to customers, i.e. the staff at this particular branch. Clearly, no deaf awareness training was delivered that I can see evidence of. Deafness might be invisible but ignorance isn’t.

I wrote to my local MP and told him what had happened. His reply;

Thank you for keeping me up to date on your correspondence with the Co-operative store as well as Asda. I was pleased to learn that the former complaint with the Co-Op has been resolved, whilst the latter store remains unable to train its staff appropriately.

As you state, how can someone see your dog, but not his distinctive coat indicating he is a working dog. With or without awareness training, I still feel it difficult to believe someone wouldn’t use their initiative and think for themselves. Or are we raising a generation of robots who cannot make the link between a working dog and a policy of no animals in a food store. It is surely not difficult to have a policy of no animals, except for and then list (with pictures if needed) the exceptions. I despair.

I got a (rather unprofessional) reply from Asda’s customer services, claiming that they had written to me in February but clearly I had not received that letter. They apologised and said all their staff are trained and they take discrimination very seriously.

Then I received a letter from the new manager of the Asda branch concerned, apologising very nicely and asking that I ask to see her when I next paid them a visit, and she would apologise in person. She also included £20 in vouchers. She said it appears one of her colleagues made an error of judgement and that they had not been laughing at me. Colleagues cannot pass their probation without completing disability awareness training; the colleagues involved had been re-briefed. At that particular store, they even have a profoundly deaf member of staff, and they have also had collections for assistance dogs. So they really are very aware of accessibility and won’t tolerate discrimination.

Problem sorted. Or so I thought.

I went into Asda today and was stopped by a stroppy young girl who informed me dogs are not allowed into the store. I told her to fetch the manager. While I was waiting, one customer told her my dog is an assistance dog, and she retorted that dogs are not allowed into the store. Another customer said to me, he doesn’t know what is wrong with people these days, why don’t I just carry on shopping. While he made a fuss of my dog, I replied that no, I’m going to complain. Absolutely right, he said!

The manager came out and I thanked her for her letter, and explained that I had been stopped yet again. She apologised, she had told all the staff, and I said it’s simply not good enough. I asked for an explanation from Miss Stroppy who said my dog was touching the shelf. Which was empty. The manager explained to her that my dog is a hearing dog and is allowed into the store. I really do think young people are so insolent these days. The manager couldn’t apologise enough, and I told her that I am EMBARRASSED. I walked away and carried on shopping.

Five minutes later, she came up to me with a huge bunch of flowers and apologised again. How moving. How nice. Hopefully, this new manager will teach her inherited team of almost-humans that disabled people can’t be treated like shit.

Or in other words, How to get a Huge Bunch of Flowers for Free without Giving Your Man the Eye.

(Ouch)





Trying to be co-operative?

12 04 2009

I went into a supermarket which is part of a national chain called The Co-Operative Group. I had my hearing dog with me. He was wearing his official purple working coat which says “Hearing Dog for Deaf People” on both sides and has the Assistance Dogs UK logo on the top. I went to the till to pay for a loaf of bread. The shop assistant told me repeatedly that a dog was not allowed into the store, that it is a food shop. I kept explaining that my dog is a hearing dog, an assistance dog for deaf people, and that he therefore is entitled to the same access benefits as a guide dog for the blind. Unfortunately, the assistant clearly did not want to listen to what I had to say, and he refused to serve me. In the end, I asked to speak to the store manager.

A young man came out and he was incredibly rude and offensive towards me. Other customers in the queue were visibly shocked. He told me he was the junior manager and refused to listen to my explanations and kept talking over me and interrupting me. I explained that my hearing dog is an assistance dog, which is one of six different kinds of assistance dogs; there are not only guide dogs for the blind which most people are familiar with but other types of assistance dogs too. I showed the manager the official identity cards which I carry for my dog: one certifying that he is a trained hearing dog, and one from Hearing Dogs for Deaf People (the organisation which trained him) with a statement from the Institute of Environmental Health Officers, stating that;

“Hearing Dogs are allowed entry to restaurants, supermarkets and other food premises. Their very special training means they are not a risk to hygiene in such premises”

The manager said he was not interested, he did not want to see them, and told me to go outside the store. I refused to go outside as I know my rights and I was very offended by the manner in which he spoke to me. As a customer, I expected a certain level of courtesy and professionalism, but I was met with an unwillingness to listen, rudeness, and an offensive attitude towards my disabled status.

I was humiliated.

I joined the queue of customers at the till and the manager came over to me and asked to see the cards. He snatched the cards out of my hand, read them and then apologised. He then told the shop assistant that I was right and that he was to serve me. I asked both of them for an apology. I asked the manager why he had not listened to my explanation. His reply was that he had never seen a hearing dog before. Well, pardon me! Before I left Ireland, I had never seen a black person, but I still knew that people can’t be treated differently on account of their colour. I had never seen a guide dog for the blind either, but I also knew that they are allowed to go into places selling and serving food because of their special training. So no, that poor excuse didn’t wash with me.

Ignorantia legis neminem excusats.

Ignorance of the law excuses no one: this is a legal principle holding that a person who is unaware of a law may not escape liability for violating that law merely because he or she was unaware of its content.

I visited The Co-Op again later that day with a leaflet for the manager, which explained the different types of assistance dogs. He said he would put this up on the wall behind the till counter. When you think about it, it’s a good way to cut training costs, just stick a poster on the wall and hope everyone reads it. That’s what I call lazy, passive ‘training’. Or is it my responsibility to train their staff in diversity awareness?!

A few days later I visited The Co-Op again. There was a different assistant at the till. As soon as he saw me, he told me to leave the store. The manager happened to be nearby and said it was ok, my hearing dog was allowed. Clearly, the other staff still had not been trained. Or should I say, no one had bothered to read the leaflet stuck on the wall.

I was disappointed.

To make matters worse, I was very surprised, and disappointed, to see The Co-Op were displaying posters around the store stating that the RNID (Royal National Intsitute for the Deaf) is their charity of the year, with large RNID-branded collection buckets at the tills. My guess is that this was just a token PR exercise.

Does RNID = Really Not Interested in Deaf?

Recently, I went into The Co-Op again (I don’t scare easily), accompanied by my hearing dog, as always, wearing his official purple working coat. I was immediately approached by a shop assistant who told me that dogs were not allowed in the shop. I explained (again. YAWN) that my dog is a hearing dog. He clearly did not understand what I was talking about and went over to his colleague.

I was annoyed.

A few minutes later, I was approached by his colleague who also told me dogs were not allowed in the shop, citing the reason that there is food on the shop shelves. I explained – yet again – that my dog is a hearing dog, a type of assistance dog, therefore he was allowed into the shop. I asked him how many times he had to be told? His poor excuse was that he had never seen a hearing dog before. They trot this one out on a regular basis! The manager was not present so I was unable to discover why the staff had not been given training, a whole month after the original incident in January when I had been promised that staff would be given the appropriate diversity training.

I am disgusted.

I did some research and discovered that The Co-Op is a member of the Employer’s Forum on Disability (EFD). The EFD’s agenda on customers states, under ‘Policy and top level commitment’;

“Service to disabled customers will form an integral part of the company’s product and service standards. A company-wide policy will be agreed by the top team and communicated to the rest of the company.”

The service to disabled customers at this particular branch of The Co-Op is clearly not up to the expected high standards of service given to non-disabled customers. I wonder why their company policy on services to disabled customers was not communicated to this branch’s staff? Was such policy communicated to other branches? Or, dare I say it, was a company-wide policy on service to disabled customers never agreed in the first place?

I am dismayed.

The EFD’s agenda on customers states, under ‘Staff training and disability awareness’;

“Specific steps will be taken to raise awareness of disability among employees involved in developing, marketing and delivering products and services to customers. Training will be made available to communicate service standards and to equip employees to achieve these.”

Eh? HELLO? I would be most interested to know why specific steps had not been taken to raise awareness of deafness and hearing dogs among the employees involved in delivering products to customers. Clearly, no deaf awareness training had been delivered to staff. Never mind that they were supporting RNID for a whole year …. Who Are They When They’re At Home?

I am frustrated.

Making the store accessible is as straightforward as informing all the staff that work there about access rights for disabled people and their assistance dogs, whether those dogs be a guide dog for the blind, a hearing dog for deaf people, a dog for the disabled, a support dog, a canine partner, or a dual purpose guide and hearing dog.

I am tired of explaining my rights.

Looking at The Co-Op’s website, I discovered that 2009 marks their Disability step-change programme, and they are Two Ticks accredited for being positive about disabled people;

“We will also continue to pay attention to customers, and the audits to ensure that all our branches and stores are accessible as they can be for customers with disabilities.”

“By diversity, we mean we value the attributes and the experiences of every individual, be they employee, member or customer. These attributes include, but are certainly not limited to … physical ability”

“Externally, we mean that we will provide easy access to goods, services and facilities and actively seek to engage diverse elements of society.
Therefore:
• We value people for their contribution and will encourage their diversity in all aspects of our business.
• We will not tolerate bullying or harassment in any form.
• We recognise that we need to support the needs of our diverse customer and community base and will work to ensure that we exceed their expectations of us.”

Huh.

However, The Co-Op have tried to make good. They sent me a letter of apology, stating they would be giving their staff training in disability awareness. They also enclosed vouchers to the value of £50.

I had told RNID’s Legal Casework Service Team what had happened. Their response? Zip.

I had also informed the Co-Op charity of the year project manager at the RNID. Zip response.

I had copied in my local Member of Parliament and I received a letter the next day; his response was one of incredulity at the lack of common sense of these shop assistants.

Most helpful were Royal Association for Deaf people Legal Services (RAD) who responded promptly and advised me on my course of action. Kudos to them!

I had (note: past tense) a deaf friend who always said I shouldn’t complain when I came across discrimination in shops and restaurants but should just leave and go elsewhere. How would that improve access for disabled people? We need to fight for our rights. Why should we be treated as second class citizens? Why does he think the Disability Discrimination Act was set up in the first place? Just to make the government look good? Just so companies can say, “Oh yes, of course we’re accessible!”.

Let’s make it simple. Just substitute the word ‘disability’ for ‘black’ and the discrimination becomes clearer.

It pays to complain.

It pays to stand up for your rights and be counted.

I might be deaf, but I’m not invisible.

Hell, no.