Who’s Keeping the Dogs Out?

A woman (who appears to be in her twenties) walks in early evening sunlight with her cheerful-looking golden retriever in harness. The woman is wearing black jeans and a blue V-necked shirt. Her long wavy blonde hair appears to be blowing out behind her slightly as if ruffled by a breeze.

Discrimination towards persons with disabilities is a daily occurrence worldwide. However, it is worth noting that developing countries such as my own are still lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to the implementation of inclusive practices.


Despite the fact that “inclusivity” has become a buzzword in South Africa and elsewhere in the world, the conversations are mostly centred around race and gender and, ironically, disability is often excluded from these conversations. Through this article, I wish to initiate an honest conversation about disability and discrimination by focusing specifically on the discrimination experienced by service dog owners on nearly a daily basis, both in my country and elsewhere.


On Friday 15 October 2021, I was on my way to represent the company I work for at a business event and I used Uber to organize a lift. I was refused by three Uber drivers because I was travelling with my guide dog Teska, causing me to be more than 45 minutes late for the event. This is despite the fact that Uber’s policy states that service dogs must be accommodated in all Uber rides. Furthermore, Section 9 of the Equality Act in South Africa states that no person may unfairly discriminate against any person on the ground of disability, including:

  1. Denying or removing from any person who has a disability, any supporting or enabling facility necessary for their functioning in society;
  2. Failing to eliminate obstacles that unfairly limit or restrict persons with disabilities from enjoying equal opportunities; or
  3. Failing to take steps to reasonably accommodate the needs of such persons.


When this incident occurred, there happened to be no Uber Assists (although I do not require assistance), or even Uber XLs in the area, and I was eventually forced to order a much more expensive Uber Black. When I reported the drivers on the app, I was refunded. However, I felt that more systemic action was required. When I posted the story on Uber’s Facebook page, however, I was met with responses that were very clearly generated by a bot. These responses simply encouraged me over and over to report the individual drivers, and I received no human response even after pointing out that I felt that the issue should be considered of enough importance to warrant  human intervention.


As I stated on their page: I do not require a personal apology, as I feel that this would do nothing to resolve the issue. I require Uber to issue a public apology to the disabled community, and to explain what they intend to do to cause meaningful change. One suggestion would be to ensure that there is a specific option on the app to report service dog related incidents, as is the case in many other countries. This would immediately make it more visible to drivers.


Blind and visually impaired persons (to name just one group of disabled people who make use of service dogs and who require these dogs to accompany them everywhere) have regularly experienced discrimination from restaurants, transportation services, and even governmental organizations by being refused entry or service when out and about with their guide dogs. These refusals are related to concerns about the cleanliness of the dogs, concerns about how the dogs will interact with other dogs (in the case of wine farms with dogs on the premises) and concerns about the dogs upsetting or scaring other customers. Sometimes, if entry is granted to restaurants or other establishments, the service dog owner is requested to sit outside, or in an isolated corner. This is a violation of the right to freedom of movement, and to human dignity.


The incident on 15 October was not the first time that Uber refused me service because of my guide dog, and it has happened to numerous other blind Uber customers. It has happened to me again after the occasion mentioned in this article, and I have heard of two other guide dog owners who have been refused access since.


I am of the opinion that reporting individual Uber drivers for refusing service dogs (as one is currently encouraged to do by their customer service) will not do any good. Often, these drivers are people working hard for a living and who may be uninformed. One could argue that they do not properly read the Uber policies, but for many Uber drivers in South Africa and elsewhere, English is not their first language. I believe that it is Uber’s responsibility to properly train their drivers regarding their service dog policy. Uber, as a massive global company, cannot keep shifting the blame onto their drivers, as this has been a problem for years now.


Drivers refuse service dogs for a number of reasons, the most common reason being that the dogs will leave hair in the car which would upset other customers. However, service dog owners keep their animals as clean as possible precisely because they have to travel with them everywhere they go, and take them into public spaces such as restaurants.


Another example of similar discrimination is the time I was refused entry to three restaurants in a row a few years ago, on one of the hottest days of the year. In 2019, yet another coffee shop (where I was supposed to meet a business associate) would not grant me entry, but asked me to sit outside in the rain with my dog.


Incidents such as these are not merely inconvenient, causing service dog owners to be late for important engagements, to be seated in uncomfortable weather conditions, or for meeting venues to be changed, but they leave individuals feeling humiliated, unwelcome and disrespected.


The time has come for South African organizations (whether they be restaurants, stores, or South African branches of multinational corporations) to take responsibility for their policies and the implementation thereof. I would also like to urge South Africans with disabilities to come forward with their stories of discrimination. We have been silent for too long, afraid of disturbing the peace and upsetting the rest of the world, but in our silence, the truth lies hidden. Our experiences and our views are as important as anybody else’s in a society that claims to prize equality, and we should not have to apologize for taking up space, whether it be at a restaurant table of our choice amongst other customers, or in a vehicle that is often our only way of getting from point A to point B.


To the international disabled and nondisabled community I say this: now is the time to recognize the discriminatory behaviours that are often even more prevalent in developing countries than they are in developed countries. Let us join hands to ensure that discrimination towards the disabled is not only eradicated in countries such as the United States and Europe, but worldwide.


Please note: This article focuses on my experiences, and the experiences of others like me who are generally educated professionals. It does not necessarily reflect the experiences of all disabled South Africans, many of whom face greater exclusion, stigmatisation and discrimination than I do. I intend to publish another article during the course of this year, addressing the lack of access to education and societal participation experienced by a huge proportion of the less privileged South African disabled community.

The Hammer and the Chisel

A woman who appears to be in her 20s sits with a glass of white wine in hand. She has long wavy blonde hair and blue-green eyes. The picture is only from the chest up, but she appears to be wearing a purple dress or top.

Almost everyone who knows me knows that I am passionate about disability advocacy. However, I don’t think that everyone necessarily understands the complexity behind the reasons why.

I am disabled, so I want to live in a world that is more inclusive towards me, and towards people like me. I have always wanted to speak for myself, as opposed to being spoken for, because I best understand my own needs. I want my life to have meaning, and for me, that meaning is to leave the world a better place than it was when I entered it. These are all huge (and partially self-explanatory) contributing factors, but they only explain to a limited extent why I choose to educate and advocate as a disability activist. They explain my goals. They do not explain the motivation behind my methods.

Large portions of the disabled community are starting to become frustrated by the fact that they are always expected to act as ambassadors for their community. They argue that expecting disabled people to constantly self-advocate to be included is unfair, and places the responsibility for making environments and situations accessible and inclusive onto the disabled person, as opposed to society. It should be the responsibility of individuals, groups and especially organisations – of society as a whole – to educate themselves on how to be inclusive and how to appropriately act as allies to people with disabilities, and disabled people shouldn’t have to constantly ask for basic accommodations and respect for their human rights.

Furthermore, the argument is that disabled people (just like everyone else) should be allowed to have a bad day, run out of patience, and to not always have to act as a perfect posterchild for an entire group of marginalised people. They should be allowed to be offended when someone does something insensitive, exclusionary, or frustratingly ignorant, as opposed to constantly trying to put the nondisabled person at ease.

Lastly, it is worth noting that disabled people often have to spend large amounts of energy on day-to-day tasks that might require much less energy from nondisabled people, and that disabled people might not have energy left to educate patiently after a long day.

I agree with these arguments. It is unfair. The arguments are completely in line with the social model (a way of framing disability to which I subscribe) which is based around the idea that disability is created through an exclusive society and inaccessible environments, and that impairments simply form part of diversity. This is as opposed to the medical model, which frames disability as synonymous with the impairment, and sees it as something that needs to be fixed or cured. This model places the responsibility on the disabled person to adapt to society as much as they can to be perceived as normal.

I obviously do not agree with the medical model way of seeing disability. So why do I choose to spend my energy on educating nondisabled people? Why do I argue that this should be done with patience and grace? Here are some key reasons:

  • I strongly believe in the common catch phrase that has been used in the disability advocacy community for decades: Nothing about us without us. I want a say when it comes to my own needs, because I understand them best. The nondisabled have made decisions on behalf of the disabled for centuries, and this needs to stop. I don’t feel that I can necessarily trust everyone to do their own research on disability, because the internet is full of opinions about disability that are expressed by nondisabled people, opinions by disabled people who have internalised ableist beliefs, and views that simply just do not reflect my own. Disabled people are diverse, and their opinions and needs differ. If I want to be accommodated as an individual, I don’t want to be spoken for.
  • This is closely related to my next reason. Self-advocacy makes me feel empowered. Before I learned to stand up for myself and my community, I did not have a voice. It is so easy to fall into a state of learned helplessness, allowing things to be done for us instead of seeking ways to do those things independently. It is so easy to simply accept things the way they are, or to complain about them with no plan on how to address them. There are many problematic elements of society, but I choose to believe that most people out there are not actively out to get me or trying to make my life miserable. If I believed the latter, I would be whiny and self-pitying, and that doesn’t align with how I perceive my identity. I prefer to see myself as capable, and as an active storyteller in my own life.
  • Right now, the harsh reality is that I will not be fully included if I do not speak out. Change will either not occur at all, or it will occur at a much slower rate than desired. I would like to work towards a world where this won’t always have to be the case. A world in which disabled children won’t have to learn to be fighters almost as soon as they can express themselves. I am working towards such a world, but part of working towards this involves exactly that: Educating and self-advocating. If I should have disabled children, I would teach them that it isn’t fair that they should be expected to constantly be the ambassador, yet I would also teach them self-advocacy and problem-solving skills anyway.
  • Simply having spent my whole life as a disabled person has made problem-solving one of my strongest skills, and this is highly prized in the workplace and in multiple other spheres of life. If I had not been born blind, I might have not been nearly as resilient and adaptable as I am today. These are strengths that I highly value within myself. Charles Darwin is often quoted as having said that evolution is about the survival of the fittest. However, what is often left out is that Darwin defined “fittest” as meaning “most adaptable”. I want to live in a society where disabilities are not seen as shortcomings, but in which diversity and adaptability are seen as strengths.
  • As for the argument that disabled people should be allowed to have a bad day and not always be expected to react politely to frustrating situations, to that I say absolutely! I (as an individual) have all the right in the world to occasionally have had enough. I have the right to sometimes lose my temper at a ridiculous situation, just as every other individual in the world has that same right. However, with this comes the need to realise and accept the reality that the person that I snapped at isn’t going to walk away understanding disability any better than they did when they did whatever it was that offended me. To the contrary, they might just avoid speaking to disabled people altogether after such an interaction, as they might be too scared to offend again. If I respond angrily or sarcastically to a well-meant (though perhaps ignorant) question about disability, I discourage nondisabled people from asking questions in the future. I squash interest in disability-related matters instead of creating awareness, I discourage people who might be trying their best to learn, I alienate potential allies, and I accomplish exactly nothing.

So why do I advocate in the way that I do? Simply put, because inclusivity breeds inclusivity. In my 29 years of experience as a blind person, I have found that the patient and gentle responses are simply what work best. For three years during university, I acted as chairperson of a student society that raised awareness about, and advocated for the rights of disabled students. What stood out to me about our society (vs. other advocacy-type societies on campus) was that we made it fun for nondisabled students to attend our events. Nondisabled people didn’t feel attacked and blamed, and so they actually became interested in disability-related matters, became allies, and sometimes radically changed the ways they talked and thought about disability. Some other societies did not adopt the same approach as we did, and the result was that many people just avoided joining their societies or attending their events. These societies positioned people who were not members of the group for which they were advocating as “the other”. There were some societies that I would have joined as an ally (because I cared about the cause) but their methods made me feel as if my opinions and ideas didn’t matter at all, and were offensive simply because they were coming from someone who wasn’t part of the specific demographic group.

In conclusion, there are many reasons that I choose to advocate and educate. Some are personal, and some are ethical. However, the reason that I spend my valuable time teaching others (as opposed to either yelling at them or simply not addressing systemic discrimination in society) is because that is what works best, in my experience at least. Of course there is room for a more combative approach in certain situations, especially when dealing with organisations and governments, or when the gentle approach was used unsuccessfully. However, when dealing with individuals, I believe that calm, empathetic, two-way conversations are what will result in my views being heard and respected.

I choose to take up a tool, because I want to help to build the kind of society that I wish to live in. I choose a chisel instead of a hammer, because a hammer destroys, and a chisel shapes. I choose to shape.