Photo by Nick Mays
Neil Ewart with a copy of his new book 'The Guide Dogs Book of Amazing Dog Tales', together with Nicola Cockburn and Guide Dog in training 'Grant' on the GDBA stand at Crufts
A BLIND woman whose booking was refused by three guesthouses because of her guide dog took out a case for discrimination and won. Nicola Cockburn, 26 wanted to visit Somerset and stay near the Cheddar Gorge or Glastonbury, but was horrified when three guesthouses refused to accept her booking because of her guide dog, Vale.
The first guesthouse claimed that Vale, - a highly trained seven year old Golden Retriever – might fight with their two Collies.
The owner of the second was quite apologetic, saying that he couldn’t have a dog on the premises because of his wife’s asthma.
But the third guesthouse, the Acorn Lodge in Taunton really infuriated Miss Cockburn owner Lionel Whitefield point blank refused to accept Vale as they had a strict No Dogs rule. "I explained to him that I was blind, but he said that no dogs meant no dogs," Nicola told OUR DOGS. "I was so cross I just slammed the phone down. Vale and I are a package- we go everywhere together." People know all about sexual and racial discrimination, but they are less aware of disability discrimination, which was what I was being subjected to."
Nicola, who is taking an arts course at Manchester University, planned her Somerset trip during last year’s Easter break. After her experience with Acorn Lodge, she vowed to fight the discrimination and approached the Disability Rights Commission for help. The Commission tried to arrange a ‘reconciliation meeting’ between Nicola and Mr Whitefield, but this did not take place, so Nicola sued him under the Disability Discrimination Act, which says that any service provider is legally obliged to accept guide dogs.
Incredibly, when the case was heard at Taunton County Court, Mr Whitefiield claimed that Nicola had phoned a different guesthouse. However, she produced an itemised phone bill that clearly showed his number and the date of her call.
Feisty Nicola represented herself in court, having reached an out-of-court agreement with the owner of the first guesthouse after threatening legal action and decided not to pursue action against the second out of sympathy for the owner’s asthmatic wife.
The judge ruled against Mr Whitefield, stating that he had been guilty of discrimination against Nicola because of her disability and awarded her £1,000 damages.
OUR DOGS Chief Reporter Nick Mays met up with Nicola at Crufts on Gundog Day. She was not accompanied by Vale, as he would be too distracted by the other dogs’ attentions.
However, she was delighted when OUR DOGS arranged a meeting between her and Neil Ewart of Guide Dogs for the Blind, who was very impressed with her story.
"I think it is an important ruling, because we hear so many cases of blind people being discriminated against because of their dogs," said Neil. "All power to Nicola’s elbow for taking the guesthouse owner on and winning – especially representing herself too!"
Nicola confessed that her parents were wary of her legal action. "They told me to back out because they were worried for me," said Nicola, "But I said it was so important that I had to do it. It was so totally wrong. If this stops one other blind person suffering similar discrimination, then it’s all been worthwhile.
"The most annoying thing is that I’ve never had an apology form Mr Whitefield, even after the ruling."
Nicola was missing Vale at Crufts, attending with family friend Heather who was helping her around. She was delighted, however, when Neil Ewart partnered her with Golden Retriever ‘Grant’, a guide dog in training who was on display to meet the public on the GDBA stand.
"It’s very nice to have my Golden ‘fix’," smiled Nicola. "But I’ll be so glad to see Vale when I get home."
Neil Ewart was publicising his new book, published in time for Crufts, entitled ‘The Guide Dogs Book of Amazing Tales’.
"It‘s essentially a collection of anecdotes from a wide range of ‘ordinary’ dog owners, of there is such a thing," Neil told OUR DOGS. "I hear such wonderful stories from friends and friends of friends who have dogs and I decided to record them for posterity. It was great fun to write and I hope that readers will find it amusing and also see their own dogs in some of those whose antics are described in the book."
Royalties from the sale of the book will be donated to Guide Dogs for the Blind.