Providing excellent customer service to a diverse customer base is essential, particularly in the current retail climate, and many retailers are taking pro-active steps to improve accessibility to their businesses. For instance, creating calmer shopping environments (e.g. dimming the lighting and not using loudspeakers) at set times to assist people on the autistic spectrum or using fonts on their websites which are more accessible to people with dyslexia. Despite this work, many customers who use assistance dogs face discrimination by being refused access to shops and other public spaces, despite the work that many are doing to make their businesses more accessible for the users of assistance dogs and for people with disabilities. Retailers should look to treat people fairly and offer access to everyone.
Research by The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association ("Guide Dogs") shows that 81% of those who responded to their survey reported they had experienced an access refusal when trying to enter shops and other public spaces with their assistance dog. As a result of this, many Guide Dogs users adjust their routes to avoid places where they may face access refusal. Under English law, access refusals may not only be in breach of the Equality Act 2010, but they can also result in lost sales, poor customer service, legal action and create reputational risk for businesses. A number of access refusals have resulted in adverse coverage by the media. Guide Dogs does a lot of work in this area, which raises the profile of this issue, for example working with businesses to help create positive change and promote accessibility for users of assistance dogs. As a recent example, in July 2022, Guide Dogs created an app to make it easier for customers to report access refusals both to the store in question, and the charity.
Guide Dogs has a long and impressive history of training assistance dogs, creating close partnerships between these exceptional canines and people who are visually impaired. Guide Dogs is one of several charities that train assistance dogs to support people with other conditions, including hearing loss, autism, epilepsy and mobility issues. These assistance dogs help thousands of people in the UK and help them to live independently. When an access refusal occurs, not only is that person prevented from accessing the same goods and services as other members of the public, but it can also often be a very upsetting and disempowering experience for the individual concerned.
UK law does not provide a fixed definition of an assistance dog or the training that is required, and consequently, there is no national certification scheme that confirms that a particular dog is a certified assistance dog. Nevertheless, the Equality Act 2010 requires that any business providing goods or services must make 'reasonable adjustments' to ensure anyone can access their services, and an assistance dog can be such an adjustment. It is important for businesses to know that, while some assistance dogs are trained by charities, individuals can also train their own assistance dogs. Further, although many dogs may wear specialised harnesses or jackets, or their owners may carry ID to identify the animal as an assistance dog, there is no legal obligation. Although many people often think of Labrador retrievers as the archetypal service dog, other dog breeds can are trained as assistance dogs.
Colleagues and external contractors (such as security guards) should be made aware of the rights of users of assistance dogs, be informed of why people use assistance dogs and be told why such animals differ from companion animals. Many businesses have handbooks setting out how to assist customers with disabilities. It can be useful to include pictures of assistance dogs in such documents. It is also commonplace for retailers to display signs stating that assistance dogs are welcome.
There are many types of disabilities, not all of which are visible. It is important for retailers to ensure that people be treated fairly and that the law is always adhered to. The challenge for businesses is ensuring that head office policy on this topic is communicated across the business, to every store and colleague. Effective communication will help provide excellent service for all customers, ensuring access for everyone and avoiding unjustified and incorrect access refusals for assistance dogs.