Home Affairs blocked guide dog ‘because of apartheid’
Blind woman was 'humiliated' when guards refused to let her in, but department says they were right
When visually impaired Mossel Bay resident Amanda Bester went to her local branch of Home Affairs, security guards and officials refused to allow her guide dog, Reo, in.
Bester and the SA Guide Dog Association have taken the Department of Home Affairs to the Equality Court in Cape Town to ask: For the placement of signs showing that guide dogs are at the Mossel Bay Home Affairs branch;
For the training of Home Affairs staff on working/guide dogs for blind and some disabled people;
That the Home Affairs disability policy be updated to refer to guide dogs explicitly; and
That Home Affairs provide training for employees and security guards on how to identify a guide/working dog. Bester told Times Select that she and her mother, who was accompanying her, had felt like “criminals”.
She said the security guards would not listen to her explanation that Reo was a trained working dog in a harness and should be permitted inside. Instead, she maintains the security guards kept referring her to a sign prohibiting animals in the building.
“They saw Reo as an animal with four legs that mustn’t come inside.” She eventually left her dog in the car, leaving the window open.
In court papers, Bester says she “felt humiliated, embarrassed and traumatised by the treatment of her disability and Reo”.
Her lawyer Deirdre Venter, from Shepstone and Wylie, argued the denial of access to the dog impaired Bester’s constitutional right to dignity because it returned her to dependence on others, which affected her mobility, independence and confidence.
But in its legal papers, the Department of Home Affairs argues that clients seated close to the entrance were “uncomfortable and intimidated” by Reo.
The department says someone screamed after seeing the dog. It argued many people were still afraid of dogs due to their use by apartheid police. It says the office was a “confined space” that was very crowded.
They say the dog’s presence at the entrance had caused a “commotion”. Bester says she didn’t hear anyone scream and her mother said there were about four other clients applying for documents.
The government also argues Bester was not discriminated against because she was not denied access to the building and received the service she came for promptly.
They do agree, however, that “her guide dog was not permitted inside the department offices”.
The department argues there were “compelling and justifiable reasons” for discriminating against her by not allowing the dog inside. This was to ensure the office “did not come to a standstill on account of commotions”. But Bester argued in court papers that “the purpose of protecting clients can be achieved less restrictively by educating the public about general safety of guide dogs”.
“The reference to the fear engendered during the apartheid years is entirely speculative in relation to these clients.”
Bester and the SA Guide Dog Association has also asked the court to order the department to produce a report showing how they will take steps to reasonably accommodate disabled people and for the government to pay the costs of the legal application.
Venter told Times Select: “This case will be a watershed moment for persons living with disabilities who chose to be guided through life by assistance animals.”