Mr Darcy as a younger pup (Photo: supplied; additional design: Tina Tiller)
Mr Darcy as a younger pup (Photo: supplied; additional design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyNovember 9, 2021

Hounded out: How bans on dogs hurt disabled people like me

Mr Darcy as a younger pup (Photo: supplied; additional design: Tina Tiller)
Mr Darcy as a younger pup (Photo: supplied; additional design: Tina Tiller)

A new member’s bill would make it illegal to deny someone service because they have a disability assist dog. Dog owner Hannah Gibson explains why the law is so necessary.

For over two and a half years, I have navigated the world with my trusty mobility dog, Mr Darcy, by my side. Specifically, I have navigated Wellington, a beautiful but notoriously inaccessible city for those with different mobility needs. And people, it hasn’t always been pleasant.

Once trained and accredited, disability dogs have what are called public access rights, allowing them to enter any public place, including public transport, and private businesses like supermarkets, restaurants, shopping malls, cinemas and motels or hotels. However, in reality, when a shop owner or café worker asks you to “leave the dog outside”, it isn’t always feasible or safe to explain the law.

Staff in a sushi restaurant once loudly told me I couldn’t be there with Mr Darcy. I could feel my face going red as everyone looked at us. We ended up leaving.

Other times, however, I have had the energy to not back down when sales assistants told me to take him out. I explained the law, pointed at his jacket where it says PUBLIC ACCESS RIGHTS, and offered them our photo ID. In the end, though, staying to browse or shop was excruciating. Plus, I don’t want to spend my money somewhere people have been rude.

Mr Darcy in his younger years (Photo: Supplied)

Searching for accessible rental properties in Wellington was already a nightmare – not just for me, but for people like my friend Erin Gough who had to use a shower at work for seven months because she could not secure an accessible house. Trying to find an accessible home that Mr Darcy would also be welcome in has made it much trickier. It is more challenging because landlords or property managers can legally deny your application because you have a dog. I have the same protections that people with regular pets have: nil.

Over the years, my partner and I have experimented with various approaches:

1. Go to the viewing and make a good impression, but don’t mention the dog. Bringing him up comes later, after we are sure the house is somewhere that could work for us.

2. Before going to a viewing, we determine how (in)accessible the property in question is. If we want to proceed, we send the owners/property manager a message and a CV-like document outlining a bit about Mr Darcy and us. The I have a service dog, but you’d never even know he was a dog approach. The photos of him usually win over the hardest of hearts.

3. Be upfront, enquire about the access, and mention Mr Darcy. But, again, make sure to minimise the fact he is a dog. Instead, make him sound like a super being. Throw in a few examples of what he does, and tell them that he helps keep the house clean by assisting with laundry and picking things off the floor. Charm them with his charisma.

The third approach has been the most successful. We discovered that landlords tend to fall into three categories. The first are happy for tenants to have animals, pet or otherwise. The second unequivocally do not want any animal in the house, regardless of how well trained Mr Darcy is. The third state they don’t want any pets, but then are open to our application. Maybe they know someone with a service dog, or perhaps they know that dogs, if well trained, probably make less mess than kids (I love kids, but I stand by this statement). These landlords are the rarest.

The thing is, it’s hard to be upfront when a large proportion of people respond with “we don’t allow pets here” even after you’ve explained he isn’t a pet. 

Mr Darcy in his ‘public access certified’ jacket (Photos: Supplied)

Even when we did find one amenable landlord, and we moved in, they made sure to tell me: “I did an act of kindness and allowed you to have the dog here.”

No one should frame allowing my mobility dog, who supports me to be independent, into the house with me as a “kindness”. It suggests I owe something to my landlord, or should be forever thankful. It’s enough to make me feel uncomfortable in my home.

It’s also exhausting to always be forced to package myself and family to minimise my disabilities and needs, to make them acceptable. Yet I have done it too often. Society is inherently ableist, and there aren’t a lot of protections to ensure disabled people are treated with respect. Making myself smaller, not asking for much, is a habit I am forever trying to break.

It’s not just rental accommodation. Public services, shops and restaurants are all places where people with disabilities are often denied entry or opportunities because they’re accompanied by an assistance dog. More legal protections would result in more choices for those who have such dogs.

Ricardo Menéndez March’s Human Rights (Disability Assist Dogs Non-Discrimination) Amendment Bill seeks to ensure that disabled New Zealanders do not face discrimination for having a mobility assistance dog.

The bill explicitly states that a person cannot be denied a service because they have a disability assist dog. The bill would replace the term “guide dog” – generally associated with dogs used by people who are blind – with the broader term “disability assist dog” as a prohibited grounds for discrimination.

So why is this new bill important?

As an extension of my arms and legs, Darcy is part of my physical body. Sometimes I call him my shadow, but really, he allows my precarious and struggling (but strong in many other ways) body to do more than I ever thought possible. He is my independence; he bolsters my confidence. I know that with him, I am safe.

To deny him entry is essentially denying me. It strips me of choice. If the bill is passed as legislation, it won’t magically make Wellington less hilly and inaccessible, but it would make a tangible difference to many of us with mobility assistance dogs.

This bill is welcome news, and I urge people to engage with the public submissions process which closes tomorrow, 10 November 2021.

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