Discrimination and why we should shout about it #AccessAllAreas

Yesterday a friend of mine was refused entry into a restaurant on the grounds that she was accompanied by a guide dog. She posted a video of the incident onto social media and received a range of responses. 
Holly, a 22 year old blind student at Coventry University had planned to celebrate her birthday with a friend at PGR Coventry. When Holly, her guide dog Isla and a friend arrived at the restaurant she was refused entry. Holly, who caught a part of the discussion on film, was told by a man referred to as the owner that dogs were not allowed in his establishment. He later asked Holly to either sit outside (on a freezing February afternoon) or leave her dog outside. Despite Holly explaining that to refuse her entry with her service dog is a finable offence, restaurant staff continually insisted that she not be granted access to the establishment while accompanied by her service animal. 
Watch Holly’s video here:


The public’s reaction to Holly posting the video of this incident has been fascinating. The majority of viewers have shared their own messages of support for Holly, many expressing their own anger and frustration towards the manager’s clear lack of understanding or care for Holly’s needs. But she’s also been on the receiving end of less encouraging messages. Some accused Holly of behaving too entitled, arguing that the restaurant did offer a reasonable alternative for her to sit outside with Isla.
Some argue that the incident might have been the result of a lack of understanding of UK laws, while others support the manager’s decision on the basis that Isla the guide dog might have posed a threat to the restaurants hygiene. 
Perhaps most concerning though are the comments who doubt Holly’s disability, asking for proof that she is blind and arguing that if she’s able to read all the comments she’s receiving, surely she can’t be visually impaired. People have suggested that she’s making a big deal out of something that doesn’t need to be newsworthy; that she is ruining people’s lives by highlighting the discrimination she faced and that she spent more time than was necessary arguing with people when she could’ve just gone somewhere else.
Watching Holly’s video had my blood boiling for so many reasons. I am fortunate that in my short time being a guide dog owner, I have experienced nothing like this level of discrimination. But what fuelled the fire for me was reading so many uneducated and frankly ignorant comments that blatantly miss the point of why this incident was an issue, but also why Holly was right to bring it to the media’s attention. So let’s break things down and explore exactly what happened to Holly yesterday. 
Why was the restaurant at fault for not allowing Holly to enter with Isla her guide dog?
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) is the main disability discrimination law. It bans any discrimination against disabled people by employers or service providers by imposing a duty on them to make reasonable adjustments so that disabled people can overcome any barriers they may face. This includes a duty to wave any regulations regarding not allowing animals in public places such as restaurants with regards to service animals such as guide dogs. 
Laws and legislations such as the DDA exist so that people with disabilities have equal opportunity to access any service, regardless of their impairment. By failing to take into regard this legislation, PGR Coventry were failing to adhere to the DDA and were breaking the law. This offence could lead to prosecution and a hefty fine.
Why was the managers offer to seat Holly outside not a ‘reasonable adjustment’?
In accordance with the DDA, Holly and any other guide dog owner has every right to access any place that is open to any other member of the public. By offering to seat Holly and Isla outside, PGR were not making a reasonable adjustment, they were offering an alternative. These are not the same things, in the same way that asking someone to sit in a different area on a public bus because of the colour of their skin is an alternative rather than a reasonable adjustment.
Why was Holly right to report PGR Coventry for discrimination?
Holly’s experience is evidence of disability discrimination that happens far too often today. The comments on social media that question Holly’s disability because of her ability to film a video or read comments, is further testament to the issue of misconceptions surrounding disability that evidently still exist more than twenty years after the DDA was published. 
Holly was right to post her video on Facebook a YouTube, to go to the local newspapers and to appear on her local radio because she is right to highlight discrimination. She is right to make people aware that refusing her access because of anything to do with her impairment is illegal, and she is right to teach people that this kind of behaviour is not okay.
She is right to demonstrate that people with disabilities have the same rights as able bodied people. She is right to challenge misconceptions that make people with disabilities other, or unequal, or unworthy. She is right to spend time trying to educate ill-informed citizens rather than giving up and going somewhere else, because she is right to want to make the future better for other people with disabilities. She is right to fight for equality because she’s right to think she, and all the rest of us, deserve it. 
I’m hugely proud of how Holly dealt with this situation, not only as someone who knows her but as someone who also has a disability, someone who also has a guide dog and as someone who will also inevitably face a similar situation in the future. I say this because I, like Holly, know that disability discrimination still happens. It happens every day in big ways like this, but in innumerable small ways too. 
I also know that the only way to challenge discrimination is to shout about it; to share it on the internet and in the media and to make people see it because if we don’t, it will never go away. It might not be our fault that we face discrimination, but it’s our fault if we don’t at least try to do something about it. So you’re right to recognise that the way Holly was treated by PGR Coventry was appalling and unacceptable. But if you’re thinking that she’s an entitled girl making a big fuss about nothing, you are wrong and you are part of the problem.

Please follow this link to sign a petition calling for the government to make refusing a guide/service dog a criminal offence enforceable by the Police:

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/119134
Link to an article about Holly’s experience in the Coventry telegraph: http://www.coventrytelegraph.net/news/coventry-news/video-blind-student-refused-entry-10936161?ICID=FB-Cov-main

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International Disabilities Day: Cuts to Disabled Student’s Allowance

Why I’m against cuts to DSA
In light of today being International Disabilities Day, I wanted to share my thoughts on the issue of the UK government’s current plans to cut government funding for the non-medical help supplied by Disabled Student’s Allowance (DSA). 
This morning I read this article which brought the issue to the forefront of my mind again:

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/dec/02/government-to-cut-funding-disabled-university-students-jo-johnson
In this article Jo Johnson, the Minister for universities and science announces that from next September onwards, higher education institutions will be expected to pay for non-medical support for students with disabilities and that funding for specialist technology and adapted accommodation will be reduced.
Upon reading this article, I couldn’t help imagining how different my university experience could’ve been if I’d chosen to start my degree in September 2016 instead of 2013. 
How has DSA helped me?
Before starting my degree in English Literature in 2013, I used DSA to purchase a range of accessibility technology including a laptop, a scanner and software, a screen reader, a Dictaphone and a braille display. My laptop and screen reader is technology that I quite literally could not study a degree without; I access all my course material electronically and I’m able to complete all my assignments and exams independently using this technology. All of this essential equipment alone cost more than £5000.
I’ve also use DSA to fund non-medical support throughout my three year degree programme. This includes note-takers who write notes for me in lectures and who type them up in an accessible format for me in their own time. It also includes my research assistant who helps me access books/inaccessible materials that I need to complete my course, often spending hours manually scanning book chapters into electronic formats and helping me navigate the often complicated and almost always inaccessible online library. Additionally, during my first and part of my second year, non-medical help funding was used to pay for my mobility on campus. This was essential in enabling my independence and wellbeing, as being able to orient myself independently gives me much more freedom rather than having to rely on sighted guides. 
How would cutting DSA affect me?
If my university weren’t able to fund the non-medical help available to me through DSA I would be unable to:
• Take notes in class – I can’t listen to the lecturer, follow the handout with my screen reader and take notes all at the same time.

• Access course materials– If I was required to adapt all my course materials myself, I’d have no time to write my assignments, let alone have a social life (that is assuming I’d have the technology to do my own scanning).

• Complete required reading – I’m studying English literature, so without my library assistant scanning chapters and sometimes whole books for me I simply wouldn’t be able to study my course.

• Complete my assignments – without the notes from my lectures, completing the required reading, accessing course materials and having the ability to source secondary texts, how could I possibly write an essay or exam?

• Write a dissertation – without my research assistant supporting me in the library and sourcing accessible materials, I would be unable to complete an 8000 word piece of work comprising entirely of individual research, which is a required part of my degree.

• Get around campus independently – no mobility training would’ve deprived me from familiarising myself with campus consequentially restricting me from attending lectures, participating in clubs/societies and orienting myself independently.
DSA has been utterly essential in making my degree as inclusive and accessible as possible. The support that DSA has enabled me to access is something that I, nor my family, would ever been able to source from our own pockets and without being able to access that financial support,, I can say with absolute certainty that it would have been virtually impossible for me to obtain a degree.
Why is DSA, and getting a degree, so important to me?
I wanted to get a degree because I want the best chance possible of getting a job, building a career and making a life for myself. I have worked damn hard during these last couple of years to make the most of the opportunity given to me because I fully appreciate that without the support and resources available, like DSA, it would be impossible for someone like me to even consider attending University. It’s been difficult, draining and almost unbearable at times; my mental health has suffered and I’ve contemplated quitting more than once. But I’m still here and I am determined to come out of this with a first. 
Why? Because I read somewhere once that a disabled person with a degree is about as likely to be employed as your average Jo with standard GCSE’s. If that’s true, I don’t really want to contemplate what my chances of getting a job would be without any HE qualifications. Contrary to a depressingly common misconception, most people with disabilities wouldn’t prefer to be unemployed. Living off benefits, without a purpose or anything to get up for in the morning is not the life I want for myself. I want a career; I want success; I want to prove that I, and others like me, can do absolutely anything in spite of our differences. For me, the best way I feel I can achieve this is by getting a degree. And the cold, hard truth of it is that without support like DSA that would be impossible. 
What does cutting DSA funding mean to me?
Cutting government funding for disabled University students is to deprive us of our right to education, our right to equal opportunities and our right to shape our own futures. The quality of support available to students with disabilities is already so varied among establishments that expecting Universities to fit the bill of non-medical support is an unrealistic expectation that can only lead to even more inconsistency. . I fear that this is only the first step towards bigger and more damaging cuts to provisions for students with disabilities in the future and I believe that it’s a mark of how disconnected our current government is from the realities of what it’s like for young people with disabilities living in the UK today that they would even contemplate this ridiculous course of action.

#EndTheAwkward

Disability Charity Scope UK’s #EndTheAwkward campaign is back stronger than everv trying to end the awkwardness surrounding disability.
 
“Two-thirds of people feel awkward around disability”
 
Emily Davison AKA Fashioneyesta recently made this video telling her stories about the awkward moments she’s experienced due to her disability.

 
So after she tagged me to join in, I couldn’t wait to get involved and share my own cringey moments in a bid to #EndTheAwkward.
 
“Are you blind love?”
 
This first awkward moment happened a few years ago when I was travelling alone on a train. I hadn’t long been travelling independently and was still getting used to using my cane on a regular basis. Growing up, I always felt that the cane made me stand out and was reluctant to use it for fear of not looking “normal”. It wasn’t until I was about 18 that I really gave into using it productively.
Anyway, so there I was. Sat happily on the train, feeling quite pleased with how the journey had gone and enjoying the boost in confidence I’d gotten from visiting my friend. Along came the food and drinks trolley and feeling pretty thirsty, I plucked up the nerve to say “excuse me” to flag the trolley down.
I think this was the first time I’d done this; not being able to make eye contact or see peoples facial expressions has always made me a bit nervous of situations like this. There have been far too many occasions when I’ve answered someones cheery greeting, only to realise that they’re actually on the phone, or I’ve asked someone for directions only to find out that I’m actually chatting to a lamppost for things like this to come easily to me.
So riding on my recently boosted confidence I asked the man pulling the trolley, “Do you have any drinks on this trolley?” (This may have been a stupid question, but in my defence it made sense to me to make sure that this was the food and drink trolley before I asked for a diet coke). My enquiry was met with the scornful and disbelieving reply, “do I have any drinks?”
“Yeah…” I said, a little uncertainly. To which he replied, obviously not trying very hard to suppress a snigger and feeling very proud of himself for this witty comeback,
“Ha! Are you blind love?”
“Well, yes” I said, casually lifting my folded cane from the seat next to me to show him.
The deathly silence that enveloped the passengers within our vicinity let me know that this encounter hadn’t gone unnoticed. Now, I obviously couldn’t see how red he went. But considering the tremor in his voice when he listed the soft drinks and how much his hand shook when he dropped my change, I think he was a little embarrassed.
But he’d embarrassed me too. His ignorance and smart-arse attitude made me feel so small and stupid. But at the same time I knew that he was the one in the wrong. In the long run the experience only served to thicken my skin against such comments.
 
The invasion of the prams
 
This awkward encounter again went down on a train (I travel a lot).
The rail assistance had put Jazzy and I in the disabled seats because the train was so full that some passengers were forced to stand. We don’t normally do this because if a wheelchair user gets on and needs the space we have to try to find another alternative, but on this particular occasion we had no other choice.
In fact I don’t know what would’ve happened if a wheelchair user had needed to board the train because following us into the carriage came no less than three sets of families with a pram each. I was asked to move to make room for the prams, but I had to explain that on this occasion I couldn’t due to their literally being no alternative and my needing space for my guide dog. My reply was met with grumbling and mutters but I was challenged no further.
Sometime into the journey I became aware that Jazzy was eating something. When I investigated I discovered that she was eating crisps that seemed to be falling from the nearby pram. I tried to draw the attention of the childs mother, but her reaction made me feel very embarrassed, undermined and incompetent. She loudly shook off my request saying,
“Oh they’re only crisps love, she doesn’t mind sharing.” I gathered from her response that her child was actually trying to feed Jazzy, so I asked again if she minded preventing her child from doing so as it would interfere with my guide dog’s training. She seemed to take offense at this and said,
“Well if she’s so well trained she shouldn’t be eating my kids crisps then should she?” and then proceeded to explain very loudly to her child so that the whole carriage could hear, “no don’t give the doggy your crisps love, that poor doggy isn’t allowed any food. Doggy shouldn’t have been eating your crisps anyway should it sweetheart, come here don’t look at the doggy anymore.”
She called the care of my guide dog into question and made me out to be the bad guy, but I wasn’t confident enough to stand up for myself and explain properly. I get very tongue-tied when faced with confrontation and find it hard to articulate myself clearly, so I felt powerless to defend myself or Jazzy. This was also quite early on in mine and Jazzy’s relationship and I hadn’t really encountered this kind of thing before. But all the fun of Jo Public’s varying reactions to my guide dog is something for another post.
 
Hiking stick or mobility aid?
 
This awkward moment is the most recent and funniest that I’ll share today.
Only about a month ago, myself and two other visually impaired friends had just gotten off a train and were standing outside figuring out whether to get a taxi or to walk home. I had Jazzy with me while both my mates were using canes. However, one of my friends has chosen to jaz up his mobility aid by opting to have a bright blue cane rather than the traditional white.
We were talking amongst ourselves trying to work out what to do when a young guy came up to us and quite smugly said,
“Did you have fun hiking today guys?” We stopped mid-conversation, thinking we’d misheard.
“Those are some funky looking hiking sticks you have there” he elaborated, going on to ask us where exactly we’d been hiking, in Cambridgeshire, where there are no mountains…
It finally dawned on us that the poor guy had mistaken the canes for hiking sticks. We explained that we hadn’t been hiking, that we were blind and that they were our canes whilst trying not to laugh along with his mates who’d witnessed his blunder. I chipped in sarcastically with,
“yeah, she’s my hiking dog. I ride her up the mountains…” which I was rewarded for with more laughter. The poor guy was pretty embarrassed and very apologetic, but we tried to reassure him that we weren’t offended.
Occasions like this present a different kind of awkwardness I think. From my experience, it’s much better to laugh at yourself and with others rather than get stressed out or touchy about silly mistakes. What makes it awkward is when the perpetrator of the misunderstanding can’t laugh along with you. They’re too mortified at having possibly offended you to relax enough to see the funny side. This often makes it much more awkward than if they’d just share the joke.
 
#EndTheAwkward
 
I could share so many other awkward moments, but I don’t think I’d ever finish this post. There’ve been times when canes have been mistaken for fishing poles, when strangers have wanted to pray for me to be healed, when my guide dog has been described as “magic” and all sorts of wonderfully weird situations have arisen.
What I’ve come to learn is that your own awkwardness about your disability is reflected in others. If your uncomfortable about your impairment and don’t know how to talk about it/understand it/laugh about it, you’re not in a position to make others feel comfortable addressing it either.
Scopes #EndTheAwkward is a fantastic steppingstone towards dispelling the taboo that surrounds disability, but I think it’s important to remember that it starts with us; only by accepting ourselves, our capabilities and limitations and by understanding our position in society can we begin to change it.
 
Find out more information about #EndTheAwkward here:
http://www.scope.org.uk/awkward
 
And I tag these bloggers to share their own awkward moments:
Beauty Within http://www.wakeupandcthemakeup.wordpress.com
Freely Me marameeh.wordpress.com
Dekota Rose https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ty8cFHexOEs&feature=youtu.be
 
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