National Express is under fire for ‘despicable disability discrimination’

A National Express Coach
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National Express is under fire for its treatment of a disabled woman, after it refused to let her travel with her assistance dog. She claims this is ‘despicable disability discrimination’. But so far, National Express hasn’t budged.

Meet Jennie and Rosie

As the Swindon Advertiser reported, Jennifer Weatherhead lives with postural orthostatic tachycardia syncope; also known as POTS. As NHS England states, POTS:

is an abnormal increase in heart rate that occurs after sitting up or standing. It typically causes dizziness, fainting and other symptoms.

It’s these fainting episodes that Weatherhead’s assistance dog, Rosie, has been trained to spot coming on. As they can occur at any time, often without warning, Rosie is vital for Weatherhead’s personal safety.

But National Express refused to let Weatherhead book a ticket with her labradoodle Rosie when she wanted to go to London to visit friends. It claimed this was because Rosie has not been trained by an organisation accredited by Assistance Dogs UK (ADUK). But Weatherhead believes National Express’s actions constitute disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.

“Despicable”

Weatherhead told The Canary:

It’s despicable of such a large company to be treating any one in this manner. Not only has it really upset me, it’s caused me to become very ill physically. They are breaking the law and discriminating against disabled users. How can such a company justify such behaviour?

Read on...

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And now, National Express are not responding to my emails. It’s just plain rude – and certainly not good customer service.

Some transport guidance is very clear on assistance dogs. As Transport for London’s guide for taxi operators notes:

there are people who have self-trained dogs. This means they have trained their dogs to meet their own particular physical, mental or other needs. You should accept these dogs as well.

TfL guidance on assistance dogs

Rosie would fall into this category.

National Express says…

The Canary put it to National Express that it had discriminated against Weatherhead because of her disability. A spokesperson told us:

We take our commitment to accessible travel very seriously and whilst we strive to ensure everyone can make use of our services, we can not compromise on the safety of our customers and our people.

Our current policy of requesting that assistance dogs travelling with us are trained by Assistance Dogs (UK) members enables us to verify a dog’s suitability to travel and ensure they would not pose a health and safety risk whilst on a coach.

Assistance Dogs (UK) is a coalition of assistance dog charities including Guide Dogs and all members adhere to the highest training and welfare standards as set out by Assistance Dogs International and the International Guide Dogs Federation.

We were not aware of a similar scheme or body which verifies the training of assistance dogs but will always listen to customer feedback. The customer in question has provided us with details of her own dog’s training, together with information regarding other organisations that verify assistance dogs’ suitability to travel and we are now looking into whether we can work with those organisations to develop our policy.

Hang on…

The Equality Act 2010 does not stipulate [pdf, p3] that an assistance dog has to be ADUK trained, or trained by one of its accredited organisations – this accreditation is only voluntary. The Equality and Human Rights Commission assistance dogs’ guide indicates National Express’s treatment of Weatherhead and Rosie could be classed as discrimination arising from disability:

Types of disability discrimination

There is also an added element to Weatherhead’s situation. POTS is an invisible illness; that is, it shows few if any outward signs. So her impairments due to it are not recognisable as, say, a deaf person with an assistance dog would be, or someone who used a wheelchair. Incidences of abuse and discrimination against people living with invisible illnesses are sadly common.

“Not acceptable”

The organisation that trained Rosie, Canine Generated Independence (CGi), seemed to agree with Weatherhead’s assertion that this was a case of disability discrimination. It told the Swindon Advertiser:

Whilst there are organisations outside of ADUK that are able to provide one of its members with evidence of training and suitably such as we can at CGi, it is not required by law.

A disabled person partnered with an assistance dog uses their dog to keep them safe and enable them to be independent. By not allowing a person’s assistance dog to travel with them it’s like telling a deaf person they cannot use their hearing aids – dogs like all disability tools are auxiliary aids.

Whilst all service providers have the right to expect a certain level of behaviour from any assistance dog regardless of who trained it. Banning a dog ‘just in case’ is not acceptable…

Weatherhead’s case appears clear cut. There’s no official government guidance stating that assistance dogs must be trained by ADUK or one of its affiliates. So, now she waits – either for National Express to back down and let her and Rosie travel, or to take her case further.

Get Involved!

– Support Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and the Mental Health Resistance Network, fighting for disabled people’s rights.

Featured image via Arriva436 – Wikimedia 

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