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Dog Guide Denied Boarding Flight

Editor's Note: Sometimes just knowing your rights can prevent discrimination. Sometimes it cannot. If he had only taken the time to look, the Central Mountain Air ground agent would have found a clear company policy permitting blind people to travel with their guide dogs. But he didn't look, and the rest, as they say, is history. If Don Urquhart had known that company policies protecting his rights were on file in the airline computer, his story might have been one of discrimination averted, not discrimination experienced. But how could he possibly have been expected to know? One of the values in an organization like the NFB:AE is that it gives us a means of sharing data that can save other blind people from the problems we have experienced. Thanks to Don and the Vancouver Island Chapter for coming up to the line on this one. Government agencies may be able to help us achieve civil rights, but it is blind people working collectively who will take the lead and point the way.

Just when we thought we could stand up equal and proud, and that discrimination and ignorance were becoming beasts of the past, we find they survive. This is the story of Don Urquhart, his black Labrador retriever dog guide, Rhea, Central Mountain Air and utter disbelief.

On the morning of July 4, 1998, Don and Rhea were to leave from his home town of Comox, British Columbia for the NFB Convention in Dallas, Texas. It would be a short flight from Comox to Vancouver, then a connection for the long haul from Vancouver to Dallas. Don, like the rest of us, was eager to attend the week-long convention, to meet up with friends there and to partake in the activities. Don had been booked on a Canadian Regional flight from Comox which, he found out when he arrived at the airport, was cancelled due to mechanical problems.

All passengers were transferred to the first available flight, which in Don's case was with Central Mountain Air. Their customer service agent told Don that he could not travel with Rhea on the flight. She refused Rhea entry to the plane, thus Don was denied his means of mobility for the entire week-long trip. "On receiving this news, I was shocked, humiliated and distressed at being denied the use of my primary means of mobility. My dog is essentially my set of eyes, and a permanent part of my everyday life. My right of equal access with her is guaranteed by law," wrote Don in a letter to the NFB:AE Vancouver Island Chapter. "Furthermore, the considerable inconvenience of caring for my dog guide in my week-long absence was imposed on my family without notice."

Ultimately, Don arrived in Dallas--his suitcase still packed with dog food. Luckily, he had also packed his white cane. "I was forced to do without my dog guide, being in effect robbed of my means of mobility, throughout my entire attendance at the convention and the return trip to Comox, and had to rely instead on sighted guides," he wrote. "This incident has had a considerable impact on me. To be denied one's rights, to be discriminated against, is a very stressful and humiliating experience. In addition to this emotional impact, my ability to take full advantage of an important convention, one that meant a great deal to me, was seriously compromised."

Don, the NFB:AE Vancouver Island Chapter, and the Vancouver Island Dog Guide Society have been in correspondence with representatives of Central Mountain Air and the Canadian Transportation Agency. Although Central Mountain Air has taken steps to ensure that there will be no reoccurrence of such an event, to date there has been no acceptable reply or recognition of the seriousness of the incident.

The matter may yet be taken to the Human Rights Commission. That morning in Comox, Don's rights, our rights--fundamental human rights--were infringed upon. In order to ensure Don's rights and those of other future travellers with dog guides, the seriousness of this incident must be recognized.

Editors's postscript: The Canadian Transportation Agency has now published its decision in this case. The first sentence of that decision is an affirmation of Don's rights and the rights of us all. Based on the above findings the agency determines that the refusal by Central Mountain Air to carry Mr. Urquhart's guide dog constituted an undue obstacle to the mobility of Mr. Urquhart.

The decision requires Central Mountain Air to train its staff in such a way that no other blind person will face the problems Don had to endure. The agency cannot order compensation, but its decision leaves the door open for Don to take his complaint to the Human Rights Commission. We will keep Canadian Blind Monitor readers posted.