The unlawful discrimination experienced by many Guide Dog users is a constant drain on our energies. Many, if not most Guide Dog owners will know the low level tension we experience every time we book a Taxi or enter an unfamiliar restaurant. Will this activity, normal and a source of comfort for most others, result in our case in an access denial, causing aggravation, argument and confrontation.
The law is on our side and is completely unambiguous, I know of no unsuccessful legal claims made by a Guide Dog Owner in relation to discrimination. Increasingly though this issue of discrimination is being associated with religious belief, especially Muslim belief.
This is how the Daily Telegraph reported a case on the 26 January 2017.
“A Muslim taxi driver refused to take a blind couple with a guide dog because of his religion.
Charles Bloch, 22, and Jessica Graham 21, had booked a cab with a Leicester firm. The couple are registered blind and had Mr Bloch’s dog, Carlo,
with them. Abandi Jamal Kassim would not let the dog into his cab,
“It is about my religion.”
Mr Kassim, 43, yesterday admitted a breach of the Equality Act when
he appeared before the city’s magistrates. He was fined £340 and
to pay £50 compensation.”
There are 2 points of interest for me from this reporting. The first is the amount of fine and compensation paid.
Last year I had a similar incident where a Taxi Driver refused to pick me up because I had a Guide Dog. The initial defence mounted by the firm was to deny that I had ever had a booking for a Cab which is obviously the default response in reaction to complaint. However luckily I had retained the confirmation text sent to my phone by the firm giving the vehicle model and registration number.
Consequentially, in my case also, the discriminating Cab Driver pleaded guilty and was fined of £750 including compensation of £250. Whilst each case must be judged on its merits it does seem odd that nuisance and distress to me personally is assessed at £250 whilst the equivalent detriment for a couple is assessed at only £50.
These sums are also thrown into shocking contrast when we consider the sums awarded in County Court cases. In October 2016 the Evening Standard reported on how a Limehouse Newsagent who had refused access to an assistance dog had been told to pay combined fines and costs totalling £22,000.
The Truth though is that I am not sure that I would want fines of this nature for my Taxi Discrimination claims. The prospect of a £22,000 liability is potentially life crippling for most people, creating a debt burden likely to affect traders and their family for a life time. I want to amend behaviour but not at the cost of ruining lives for service providers and their families.
What is a more constant discomfort for me is the focus and alignment of reports of discrimination against Guide Dogs Users as emanating from those who follow Islam as a faith. In my discrimination case I was at pains to; at no time investigate the religious attitudes of the driver who discriminated against me. I have experienced negatives attitudes to my dog from people from many backgrounds. I am concerned however that the issue of Discrimination, completely unjustifiable in itself, is now being used as a racist stick to beat a beleaguered Muslim Community with.
Guide Dogs as a An organisation has pointed to the existence of successful Guide Dog partnerships operating in Muslim families, examples of Mosques where special arrangements are made to accommodate Guide Dogs accompanying Muslim worshippers have been cited in Television documentaries, and most importantly that the Muslim Parliament has issues a Fatwa declaring that it is wrong for Muslims to discriminate against people requiring a Working dog like a Guide Dog. This is not to deny that work has to be done in raising awareness amongst the Muslim as well as other communities but a necessary relationship between having a Muslim faith and consequent discrimination against Guide Dogs is simply not there. To that extent the Driver cited in the Telegraph report was ignorant of the tenets of his own faith.
There are other personal reasons why I am so discomforted by attempt to join my anti-discrimination bandwagon by people with potentially racist motives. I was brought up in a family environment where I was taught that racism was wrong and a great social evil. I took these attitudes into my younger political life, and whilst I do not retain all of the ideals of my radical youth my commitment to anti-racism has remain strong.
Part of the reason for this comes from just a personal insight into the great cancerous evil racism can create. In my youth I joined an organisation called Rock against Racism. In that connection I did, for two memorable nights act as a bodyguard for Tom Robinson, of 2-4-6 Motorway and Sing if you’re Glad to be Gay fame. Tom Robinson had received threats of violence from a neo Nazi group for daring to perform as an openly gay musician. As I was, at the time, reasonably sighted and 6ft 4 I decided, along with some friends of similar stature, to offer protection. We apparently provided enough deterrent to persuade these Neo Nazis to not to follow through on their threat.
After that my life started to change though. I eventually had to endure constant harassment. Much of this was irksome and not dangerous. I would be woken up in the middle of the night by the Gas Board responding to hoax alerts of leaking gas, ditto for being disturbed by the Fire Brigade with hoax calls about fire in my house. I was plagued by people knocking on my door responding to adverts placed, in my name, in the local paper claiming I was selling cars and other items for absurdly low prices. Every week I started to receive goods on approval and trial, ranging from Bullworkers to the Complete Beatles Single Collection, ordered falsely in my name, requiring me to arrange to return these items.
Some threats were more explicit. I started to receive death threats in the mail, accusing me of the crime of being a “Traitor to the Aryan Race”. I received Funeral Cards inviting me to my own funeral. I received letters threatening me that if I continued my anti-racism stance I would be targeted for elimination. I was at apparently level 8 in the list of racial enemies and that by the time I reached level 10 I would be dead.
The next stage was more overt. My home started to be targeted. I had paint daubed all over my front door. Windows in my house were smashed when bricks were thrown through them. Sadly it was the windows of completely uninvolved women in a flat downstairs that had their windows mistakenly broken. I took all the evidence to the Police and predictably, for the time, they simply laughed and in effect told me that they had more sympathy with my racist harassers. I cannot prove it but I formed the very strong impression that they knew who was behind the campaign and actually were prepared to collude with it. Such was life in the 1970s. It was bad enough as a single man; I cannot imagine the stress this would all have caused if this was to have happened at a later time with the wife and children I was to eventually live with.
Now I am clear that the behaviour of this ignorant racist scum who were never in the end brave enough to face me in person represents the actions of a very small minority. However I was aware that I was having an insight into the world of harassment that black, Asian, Jewish and Muslim families have had to daily endure for years. It is one thing to know about harassment in theory. It is completely different when it is personal.
I also realised that the actions of the ignorant racists can only flourish in an atmosphere of the general racist climate. This is the real danger of the casual racist. They provide the succour and confidence for the malignant few.
So I will never budge against my commitment to anti-racism. It is a dangerous cancer which destroys trusts in communities and destroys the prospect of positive social development.
I want support for the right to use my Guide Dog because I believe in a society where discrimination is wrong and ultimately evil. I do not want this to be a stick with which to beat the Muslim Community. I will stand shoulder to shoulder with Muslims against ignorant Islamophobia. Discrimination against Muslims because of their faith and discrimination against people because of their disability comes from the same evil well. If we are to learn anything from the past and the experience of the 30s in the uncertain future we face, it is the need to support each other rather than raising the bitter hostile face of racism and indifference to the needs of those who may be strangers in our midst.