Archive for October 2018

An unnecessary proposal which will discriminate against some owners of assistance dogs

October 5, 2018

I have found that when you are deeply troubled, there are things you get from the silent devoted companionship of a dog that you can get from no other source – Doris Day

Under the Equality act of 2010 you are considered disabled if you have a physical or mental impairment that has ‘a substantial and long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities. ‘Substantial’ is more than minor or trivial so, for instance, if it takes much longer than it usually would to complete a daily task like getting dressed is not classed as ‘minor’ or ‘trivial’. ‘Long-term’ means 12 months or more.  You automatically meet the disability definition under the Equality act from the day you are diagnosed with HIV infection, cancer or multiple sclerosis and there is also a classification regarding progressive conditions (those which get worse over time such as a breathing condition which develops as a result of a lung infection): All can be classed as disabled conditions.

If you are disabled you have rights to protect you from discrimination and you have these rights in almost every public aspect of your life including employment and education.  One area that is not included is travel because the complexity of making discrimination illegal as far as aircraft, buses and trains is simply too complicated. Many transport companies are making an effort to help disabled people but as demonstrated by a report in Which? Magazine recently there is still a very long way to go simply because of the technical difficulties involved in wheelchair users getting on and off almost all modes of public transport.

For well over 100 years it has been recognised that dogs can be not just helpful but often essential in assisting those who are disabled to cope with their disability.  During this time and particularly during the last 30 years, many organisations have been set up to specially train dogs for those people who would like a dog (not everyone wants to have a dog if they are disabled) and for whom a dog would be an asset. Guide dogs, hearing dogs for deaf people and support dogs for those who are wheelchair-bound are often seen on our streets and they are identified by their jackets which clearly indicate their role.  As I explained in a recent Speakers’ Corner, a number of those charities have come together to share expertise and to represent their interests and the interests of their users under the banner of the charity Assistance Dogs UK (ADUK) whose director, Peter Gorbing has become a powerful figure as far as disabilities issues are concerned as he has been an effective spokesman on behalf of disabled people. This has some disadvantages as there are some who feel that his approach appears to be especially protective of ADUK and this has inadvertently, although some affected say deliberately, complicated disability issues for a number of disabled dog owners.

Disability comes in two basic forms, those which are obvious and those which are hidden.

Less recognised disabilities

Physically disabled people who are wheelchair-bound or find difficulty in walking are clearly distinguishable from the able-bodied. Not being able to hear or see are ‘hidden’ disabilities to some extent but ones which are universally recognised and are well supported by dogs.  But there are a wide range of other hidden disability issues and these include: epilepsy (medical detection dogs can indicate if an epileptic fit is imminent); support dogs (for those with mental health problems including panic attacks); respiratory illnesses and those with cancer, HIV infection and multiple sclerosis where a dog can provide stability, comfort, companionship, emotional and sometimes practical support.

But for the present there are no well-heeled charities set up to provide canine services for those who feel they would be helpful and therefore no public recognition of the role that they play. For many people in this position they have dogs which they themselves have trained but which are not ‘officially’ recognised as support dogs by employers or schools and colleges which, in theory, they have a duty to do.

When this was brought to the attention of the Office for Disability Issues (based at the Department of Work and Pensions) a working group was set up to try and address these problems. I am told by the gentleman who was tasked with organising the working group that he knew very little about working with assistance dogs but made every effort to contact all those groups likely to be involved or affected and I am happy to accept his assurances – but as so often significant stakeholders were omitted (the Pet Education, Training and Education Council of which I am the chairman for one). There is an understandable tendency for government to look for advice from the most forceful and often well-funded groups (who naturally can not only afford to employ clever and intelligent PR people but have the resources to send them to such meetings) and this certainly appears to have happened in this case.  I am not for a moment suggesting that those clever and intelligent people do not have the best interests of those they represent at heart but as soon as government is involved the whole process becomes far more complicated (and expensive) than it needs to be.

Keep it simple – bureaucracy can be avoided

The solution being proposed by the working group appears to be to allow the setting up of a completely separate structure monitored by the Office for Disability Issues which would mean that both dogs and owners in the unfortunate position of not having currently ‘recognised’ disability where the ownership of an assistance dog would be helpful, be subjected to an external test of their and their dogs’ suitability.  I have had the opportunity to examine the test and its accompanying rubric and it is my opinion that it is unnecessarily complicated, poorly constructed and likely to be expensive. It would also greatly increase the stress being placed on owners who have more than enough problems to cope with anyway.

The original suggestion was that this test would be administered by just one non-statutory organisation who would exclusively train some of its members interested in taking part (follow the money ladies and gentlemen) and that, in their words, ‘as the character of dogs changes over the years’ the test would have to be repeated several times during the dog’s life.  It is not just the structure that is wrong, the foundation upon which it is built, is on sand not on sense. But there is some good news: the first is that nothing has yet been finally decided so there is still the opportunity to deconstruct the whole proposed edifice and the second is that those on the working group have sensibly decided that if any training of owners and dogs is to take place then it should not be confined to one exclusive group of trainers.  This would mean, in the sad circumstances of this solution going forward, that at least some competition will be introduced into the scheme.

But there is a much simpler solution which would take it away from government and the associated bureaucracy, is pragmatic, and fits in with the current structure of the charitable sector involved with assistance dogs. I believe that what should happen is that a separate charity should be set up (hopefully supported by the others already working in the field and ADUK) to train dogs and help owners who are affected by these specific and complex issues. It would automatically have the same status of the other charities and be able to flexibly and pragmatically solve the problems of those affected (and provide its own ‘approved’ badged jackets for the dogs) without being burdened by unnecessary administration.

Some stakeholders on the working group have asked that I become a member and I have been accepted. I will keep you informed as to progress.