Half of guide dog owners are forced to change or restrict where they go, legislation can change this

Imagine how hard life is if you cannot see. There are amazing people who are able to use a dog to help them go about their daily life. Dogs trained so skilfully that they can transform the opportunities for blind people.

Almost a third of people with sight loss are reluctant to go out on their own, and almost half of guide dog owners are forced to change or restrict where they are willing to go. This needs to change.

As assistance dogs are able to help more people, my bill will solve some of the problems dog owners face.

People who use assistance dogs are routinely refused access by restaurants, shops, and supermarkets. Some are even refused access in healthcare settings. It is not just entering such places that presents a trial; the very act of getting from one place to another is a challenge too. Pavements and footpaths can be obstructed by parked vehicles, making it much more difficult for people with sight loss to go about their daily life.

We have all felt for the light switch in a dark room at home – we can understand the feelings of frustration, helplessness, and even panic. If that is what it can be like, trying to turn on the lights in your own home, imagine trying to do so somewhere strange, where a misstep could mean cracking your head on a kerb, or being hit by a truck.

We must make sure that users of assistance dogs can gain access to the places they need to go to, and are able to do so, whether by vehicle or on foot, without hindrance. No shop, no restaurant, no supermarket should be turning away someone with an assistance dog, no taxi driver should be shaking his head at these people, and no pavement should become an obstacle course, blockaded by parked vehicles.

I am proud to be able to say that in North Herefordshire, people with sight loss have an especially esteemed place. Hereford is home to the Royal National College for the Blind, where young people with visual impairment receive training and education. The England Blind football team train in Hereford. It is a wonderful thing to witness these individuals learning not to cope, but rather to thrive, and yet many of these people experience further discrimination in their lives.

Figures suggest that 74% of people with assistance dogs were turned away from food and drink outlets from July 2021 to July 2022, that 53% experienced a refusal when visiting a shop. How can we allow for disabled people who need, and do have, dogs to assist and guide them, to be made to feel unwelcome or in doubt about their ability to act independently?

Currently, taxi and Private Hire Vehicle (PHV) drivers can be issued exemptions from carrying assistance dogs on medical grounds. Some people are allergic to dogs – this is an unavoidable fact. However, it is only taxi and mini drivers who can hold exemptions due to allergy. There are only 7,000 assistance dogs out there – surely we can accommodate everyone?

If it is a legal requirement for owners and employees in small shops to accept assistance dogs, why should taxi and PVH drivers be allowed total exemptions? Would it not be better, especially in a time when protective screens for drivers are widespread and easy to fit, that drivers were trained to think ahead. So that they have a solution to their dog allergy rather than refusing to carry a blind person.

It is what we all do – we give consideration to how we can accommodate disability, rather than reject disabled people.

Equally clear is the solution to the problems that face assistance dog owners when they go about on foot. In a 2019 survey, 80% of blind or partially sighted people reported that pavement parking made it difficult for them to walk on pavements at least once a week. Consequently, one in five people with sight loss have been injured because of pavement parking. In London, pavement parking has been heavily restricted since 1974, and in London only 26% of people with sight loss face daily problems, while in the country at large, that figure is 45%. It has already been done both in Scotland and in Northern Ireland – England should not be lagging behind.

This Bill will make the lives of people with assistance dogs easier, it will also encourage and support people who use dogs or perhaps want to use a dog but are afraid of being made to walk home in the rain, barred from using a taxi or restaurant and forced off the pavement into the traffic by pavement parking- just imagine if that was you!

Sir Bill Wiggin MP

Sir Bill Wiggin is the Conservative MP for North Herefordshire, and was elected in 2001.