My friend Steve Cunningham is blind. He is also one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. Although Steve lost his sight at the age of 12, he is the holder of not just one, but three world records: achieving the record for fastest blind man on land (in a racing car); on water (in a powerboat); and in the air (he was the first blind man to fly a plane around the UK).
So you can imagine just how angry I was last week, when I offered to take Steve out to lunch at a well-known hotel in Marlow, only to be told that the restaurant did not accept dogs – not even guide dogs – and that we could eat on the terrace (it was raining) or in the bar (we wanted a meal, not a snack). In the end, we went to Danesfield House nearby, which gave us an excellent meal and even offered Steve’s dog, Lynton, a (non alcoholic) drink as well.
This experience was new to me but Steve tells me there is a shockingly high degree of ignorance of the Disability Act among employers and the public in general. The more we can all do to raise awareness and “spread the word”, the better. So here are three points to remember:
1. Restaurants: Under the Disability Discrimination Act, it clearly states it is acceptable for a guide dog to be in a restaurant. Environmental Health has sanctioned this, and all guide-dog owners carry a card that details this to the restaurant owner. The Act also states that these establishments should make suitable adjustments to accommodate a visually-impaired person. This should include attitude – a simple adjustment that costs nothing.
2. Transport: Few transport staff have been on an awareness training course – and this sometimes causes problems when they are communicating or trying to guide a disabled person through tight areas or flights of steps. As Steve put it: “Aside from the London black cabs, getting in a taxi with a guide dog is tricky – there is a universal lack of compassion or understanding. Councils across the country need to consider such training and education before handing out their badges.”
3. Employment: The Chancellor recently announced a reduction in income support for disabled people to encourage people back to work. But more needs to be done to educated employers. “Not only must we compete with other candidates for the job, but we also face an uphill struggle convincing employers that we are more than the disability; that the disability does not, and will not, affect the job,” explains Steve.
It is not all just about the rules, it is about sheer decency and common sense. Let’s hope David Cameron’s vision of the Big Society includes these traits.