Guide dogs help many people with a disability. They have been used by people who are blind or Deaf for a long time. Dogs are now being used to help other people with a disability. Some people think the law needs to change to protect the rights of people who need an animal to help them. New laws could allow more people to take their animals wherever they go. But some people are worried about the changes.
Posted by: Joanne Richie, on 24/02/10
Dogs play an important role in many people's lives
Dogs have played an important role in the lives of many Australians with a disability since the 1950’s. Dogs are trained to assist people with vision and hearing impairments. They also help people with mobility issues. More recently they have been trained to provide support to people who have seizures. They also now assist people with mental illness.
There are laws in Victoria that try to protect people from discrimination because of their disability. But the protection for people who are discriminated against because they are accompanied by an assistance animal is currently limited.
The problem is that the Equal Opportunity Act 1995 only protects some people who travel with dogs. It includes dogs that are trained to assist people with sensory or mobility impairment. But it does not include dogs that are trained to respond to seizures. It also does not include dogs to assist people with a mental illness. And it does not include other animals which might perform similar roles.
A report by the Victorian Law Reform Commission was tabled in parliament last year. The report recommends changes that would give people that use assistance animals greater legal protection. The changes would recognise more animals as being legitimate assistants. The commission believes the changes should help to reduce discrimination for many people with a disability.
But there has been debate over the use of the term “assistance animals” instead of “guide dogs”. The proposed change from “guide dogs” to the broader category of “assistance animals” would align Victorian legislation with the national Disability Discrimination Act. It would also help ensure other species of animals could be trained to assist people with a disability.
But some people are concerned about the use of the word “animals” instead of “dogs”. Some people and organisations that gave feedback to the Victorian Law Reform Commission and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission were opposed to the change. Many were worried if the law changes that guide dogs will not be as accepted and recognised in the community. Other concerns expressed during public consultations included:
- The hygiene of other animals
- The risk of transmittable of diseases from other animals
- The potential of unacceptable behaviour from other animals
- Concerns over animal welfare.
Some transport operators were also concerned about assistance animals. Some were worried about how to identify legitimate assistance animals. They think that allowing different types of animals on public transport could compromise existing regulations. It was also argued that the animals could also affect the travelling comfort of other passengers.
Clear and practical regulations
Organisations like Vision Australia and Blind Citizens Australia support the use of the term “assistance animals”. They believe that clear and practical regulations will ensure businesses and service providers in the community can have confidence about an animal’s status as an assistant.
The Victorian Government is currently preparing its response to the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s report.
Meanwhile, Metlink has developed an Assistance Animal Pass. The pass is for Victorians who are unable to use public transport without an assistance animal. The pass is issued to people who can demonstrate that their assistance animal alleviates the effects of their disability. Animals covered by the pass include:
- Mobility support animals for people with physical disabilities
- Medical alert animals
- Psychiatric service animals.
Guide dogs trained for blind or visually-impaired people and hearing dogs trained to help Deaf or hearing-impaired people do not require a pass.
Do you support the proposed change from “guide dogs” to “assistance animals”? Let us know in the comments section below.
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