A blind woman was left shocked and humiliated last Sunday after two Leicester Square restaurants would not allow her and her family to eat there with their guide dogs.
Siobhan Meade, along with her husband Sean and sister Keeley, had just enjoyed watching the Paw Patrol movie at the Leicester Square Vue at around 11am, when they decided to get a snack.
However, Siobhan, from Stevenage, said the group’s high spirits were ruined when they were told they could not dine at the fast-food restaurant Jollibee because they had Siobhan’s guide dog Marty and Sean’s guide dog Sammy with them.
The marketing and communications manager told SWL that despite both guide dogs being fully marked up and Sean explaining that they were guide dogs, the restaurant staff still maintained the dogs were not allowed in.
The group were then also refused service at the Little Italy restaurant in Leicester Square, before being told they could only be served outside in the rain, Siobhan claimed.
The group then found a restaurant that Siobhan described as extremely welcoming but by that point she was fatigued by their ordeal.
She said: “I didn’t want to make a scene. I felt embarrassed and humiliated at that point anyway and my heart sank because it was such a lovely morning and then to have this, It was horrible.
“You felt battered by the time you got there, emotionally and mentally.
“I was just reliving it and I am still reliving it – thinking two establishments, one after the other, you know one is bad enough.
“It ends up crushing your soul and it’s a constant fight and you always think ‘is this restaurant going to refuse me?’
“It’s really shocking.”
Siobhan stressed that this has happened to her around 60-70 times in the 18 years she has worked with guide dogs.
She added: “You just feel like a second class citizen.
“If this happened to anyone else of a protected characteristic people would be up in arms about it and rightly so.
“And I just don’t see why it doesn’t seem to be as big an issue as it ought to be really, as there are over 5,000 guide dogs across the UK.”
Under the Equality Act 2010, businesses such as restaurants have a legal responsibility to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities so that their disability does not disadvantage them for accessing a service.
Waiving a no dogs policy for guide dogs and other assistance dogs, is therefore a reasonable adjustment that enables disabled people to access restaurants.
However, a 2019 report from Guide Dogs for the Blind showed 52% of the people they surveyed said they had been refused from restaurants because of their guide dog.
Guide dog owners also reported feeling very welcomed at some restaurants, thus showing little consistency in upholding the law across the industry.
It’s this constant worry that Siobhan cites as why many blind people will not try somewhere new but will return to the same restaurant where they know they will be accepted.
According to Assistance Dogs UK, a coalition of assistance dog organisations that have been accredited by by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) and/or The International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF), there are over 7,000 assistance dog owners in the UK.
This figure does not take into account assistance dogs that have been trained outside the seven major assistance dog organisations that make up the ADUK coalition.
Crucially, if a person with an assistance dog is refused from a restaurant, there is no easy legal route for them to take the incident further.
Siobhan said: “There seems to be no deterrent, in my opinion, because it’s up to the person with the assistance dog if they want to take it further because it’s not a criminal offence. It’s unlawful but it’s not a criminal offence.
“If you get refused for a shop or restaurant, you’re on your own and a lot of people don’t have the time, the confidence or the patience to take it further.”
Alongside further educational training for businesses, Siobhan believes on the spot fines may be the way of tackling this form of discrimination faced by people with disabilities.
She added that the onus should not be on the guide dog owner to fight for their rights.
Siobhan said: “Some people get so tired that they don’t bother reporting it or just don’t bother going there again.
“They will just stick to what they know and that for me is being imprisoned in where you feel you can go.
“That’s not a society that’s open to all and that’s why I’m always going to stand up for those people who just can’t.”
Jollibee stressed they were disappointed to hear about the incident, saying all their staff were trained on rules regarding guide dog entry but they would need to repeat this training.
A Jollibee spokesperson said: “All our staff at Jollibee are trained on the rules regarding the entry of guide dogs into our stores, however, in light of this coming to our attention, it is clear that we need to revisit this training.
“As of today [10th August], we have reminded all our staff of the rules regarding the entry of guide dogs into our stores, in line with the UK’s Equalities Act 2010.
“At Jollibee, ensuring our customers feel welcomed is one of our key values, so we are disappointed to hear about the incident.
“We have spoken to Sean to further investigate this, and after a discussion in the store they were allowed to enter but decided to leave.
“We have invited him back to the store to have a complimentary meal as originally planned and to receive a true welcoming Jollibee experience.”
The Little Italy restaurant in Leicester Square has also been approached for comment.