Assistance animals, access, and ableism

Recent media outlets reported multiple incidents of disabled people being forced to leave public premises due to having an assistance animal with them.

By Christina Warner, Barrister,33 Bedford Row

 In November 2022, Angharad Paget-Jones was forced to leave the Premier Inn hotel in Enfield, London because staff did not believe that her golden retriever was a guide dog.[1] Similarly, in May 2022, Stephen Anderson was told to leave a McDonald’s branch by an employee after being told that dogs were not allowed in the fast-food chain.[2] Whilst, on social media platform, Tik Tok a video went viral after Caleb Cahill, an epilepsy sufferer was prevented from taking his assistance dog into a Co-Op supermarket.[3]

These incidents have highlighted the lack of understanding of both the legislation governing the rights of those with disabilities as well as the role assistance animals play in the lives of their handlers.

With guide dog users as a starting point, the RNIB issued their Open Doors campaign alongside their report, titled ‘Lets Open Doors’ looking into the impact of access refusals on Guide Dog owners. The Report indicated that as of 2022, 81% of guide dog owners have been refused access in the past and 73% in the 12 months prior.[4]

Legal underpinning

The Equality Act 2010 c. 15 s 173 clearly sets out the four criteria for the definition of ‘assistance dog’ as: –

  1. guide dog,
  2. hearing dog,
  3. dogs trained by prescribed charities to assist disabled persons in regard to epilepsy ‘or otherwise effects the person’s mobility, manual dexterity, physical co-ordination or ability to lift, carry or otherwise move everyday objects.’
  4. A dog of a ‘prescribed category’ who has been trained to assist a disabled person who has a disability (other than in c) of a ‘prescribed kind’.

Additionally, the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued guidance confirming:[5]  that “Assistance Dogs are ‘not pets and are treated as auxiliary aids’” and sets out three criteria:

The guidance goes on to state that the law does not require a dog to wear a harness or jacket to identify it as an assistance dog. There is no legal requirement for owners to have an ID book and mentions that the dogs can be ‘owner trained.’

Beyond the functional tasks that assistance dogs are trained for, there is growing literature describing their benefits on the psychosocial health and wellbeing of their handlers.[6] The role of assistance is broader than just assisting the blind or visually impaired but also include medical and response alert dogs, allergy detection dogs, mobility assistance dogs, autism assistance dogs and psychiatric assistance dogs. Their roles vary from helping a person navigate or interact with the environment around them, alerting or responding to a change or symptom of a medical condition.[7] Assistance animals are also no longer limited to helping handlers in only physical ways. They can also help soothe and improve their mental wellbeing, and almost any animal can be used for this purpose. Therapy animals and emotional support animals (ESAs)[8] have been used in cases of those with autism, and more typically anxiety and/or depression. In addition to therapy animals being used by individuals, organisations such as hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes and schools have been known to facilitate the use of therapy animals when managing both physical and mental health challenges.[9]

Access denied

But the legislation surrounding assistance dogs has not been without its challenges. As recently as 2019, £1000 compensation was awarded to Terri Balon for a taxi refusing to carry her and her guide dog.[10] Figures indicate that 76 percent of guide dog users have been illegally turned away by businesses and services.[11] On 25 May 2016, a large number of assistance dog owners lobbied Parliament. They called for stricter penalties for taxi and minicab drivers who refuse to take them and/or their assistance dogs in vehicles or make additional charges to do so.[12] The Mayor of London has attempted to tackle the issue by way of placing mystery shoppers to identify non-compliant taxi and private hire companies[13] as well as a Parliament briefing paper on ‘assistance dog issues’[14] and the Equality and Human Rights Commission publishing guidance on assistance dogs for businesses.[15] Assistance Dogs UK issued a call for greater regulation as a result.[16]


Ableist attitude

But the issues of accessibility for disabled people to services and transport is nothing new and goes beyond the need to highlight legislation governing assistance animals. The issue of accessibility for disabled people was once again, brought into the media spotlight in the context of access to transportation. Most recently when two incidents hit the headlines, including a disabled woman having to drag herself to the toilet on a commercial flight in October 2022[17] and a disabled person’s wheelchair being crushed during an Air Canada flight in September of the same year.[18]

Despite the Equality Act 2010 outlining the legal requirement for adjustments to be made to ensure access to services including education, housing and goods and services (e.g., shops, banks),[19] the issue of disabled people’s ability to access everyday services is wide-reaching and the refusal of entry to guide dogs is only one of several examples. The issue is certainly not linear with disabled people who have experienced difficulty accessing products or services being more likely than non-disabled people to report other barriers, including difficulty accessing transport.[20]

But it has been argued that ableism (or the belief that a fully functional body and mind are the norm for a human being[21]) is the root cause of access challenges to disabled people.[22] A failure to consider the needs of anyone other than the able-bodied is likely to have contributed to, if not caused, issues of inaccessibility. Thinking that the model of one-size-fits-all, is a precarious way to run business or provide a service at a time when much weight is placed on customer service and client care.

It starts with understanding that needs and capacities, mental, physical and sensory vary and through that variety will come differing needs for adjustment and adaptations in order to ensure that all services and products are fully available to all.

Christina Warner

33 Bedford Row








[8] “[…] animal that provides relief to individuals with “psychiatric disability through companionship.””

[9] Bert F, Gualano MR, Camussi E, Pieve G, Voglino G, Siliquini R. Animal assisted intervention: A systematic review of benefits and risks. Eur J Integr Med. 2016 Oct;8(5):695-706










[19] S 20 Duty to make adjustments

[20]  (22.9% for disabled people, 6.1% for non-disabled people, a 16.8 percentage point difference)

[21] Linton, Simi; Bérubé, Michael (1998). Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York University Press. p. 9.


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