Home affairs lashed for banning blind woman’s dog
The department must apologise to the woman after she and her guide dog were refused entry to Mossel Bay branch
The Equality Court sitting at the Western Cape High Court has ordered the department of home affairs to apologise to a blind woman for refusing to allow her access with her guide dog, Reo, at their Mossel Bay branch.
Judge Vincent Saldanha found last Friday that the home affairs officials had unfairly discriminated against Bester.
The judge ordered the department to apologise to Bester for the manner in which she and Reo were treated.
Bester visited the office in August 2017, but 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, the guards kept referring her to a sign prohibiting animals in the building, she said in court papers.
“They saw Reo as an animal with four legs that mustn’t come inside.” She eventually left her dog in the car, with the window open.
In court papers, Bester said 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.
The department, however, defended the action of its employees in court papers and argued that clients seated close to the entrance were “uncomfortable and intimidated” by Reo.
The department said 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.
It said 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 case was brought to court by Bester and the South African Guide Dogs Association.
The judge has also ordered the department to take reasonable steps to accommodate the needs of people living with disabilities and that clearly visible signs be put up at all entrances stating that guide dogs and service dogs are allowed access to the offices.
Saldanha also ordered the department to provide training on an ongoing basis to all staff and security guards contracted with the department at the Mossel Bay office on the treatment and handling of disabled persons.
The department must, in 120 days from the date of the order, submit a report under oath to the court and the association, setting out the steps it has taken to rectify the matter.
Venter said the judgment was long awaited and a momentous victory for all guide and service dog owners in SA.
“Prior to the judgment there was no law that a guide or service dog owner could turn to when faced with the so-often arbitrary denials of access to both public and private businesses and organisations.”
She described the judgment as a pronouncement that the law is to protect the guide and service dog owners’ choice to live an independent life with a working dog and that this choice may not be removed by anyone except for a legitimate reason.
The principle had been authoritatively laid down by the Equality Court that denial of access to a guide or service dog in absence of a justifiable reason was unfair discrimination.
“The pronouncement will change many lives of disabled persons who go about their daily tasks with a highly trained canine companion and aide by their side.”