Help Combat Injustice For BC Guide Dog Teams Who Choose To take Taxis

The Canadian Federation of the Blind

On October 15, 2015, the BC Human Rights Tribunal handed down a ruling with serious negative consequences for guide dog users who want equal access to taxis in this province.

The Canadian Federation of the Blind has launched a crowd funding campaign to help defray the costs of challenging this decision. One possibility is requesting a judicial review we are exploring other possibilities.

We are circulating the following letter explaining the campaign and seeking support.

Dear friend,

Without your immediate help, three quarters of a century's work establishing the access rights of guide dog teams may be casually swept away in British Columbia!

Discrimination by the taxi industry is just fine, a minor inconvenience, no more, according to Jacqueline Beltgens of the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal.

We need your help to raise fifteen thousand dollars to fight for legal redress of a Tribunal decision that gives more credence to hearsay about a taxi driver's unproven dog allergy than to the rights of a person with a guide dog.

Please Follow This Link to make your cry for justice heard. As you read Graeme McCreath's story, consider the implications for guide dog teams everywhere.

Graeme McCreath just wanted to go out for a casual evening with a few friends on July 15, 2014. He never intended to walk into a humiliating bureaucratic nightmare.

The story is all too familiar to anybody who cares about guide dogs and human rights. A friend phoned a taxi. When it arrived, the driver, Bruce MacGregor, announced, "I can't take the dog. I'll get you another cab."

The refusal of service was a public humiliation. It was also a direct violation of British Columbia's Guide Animal Act.

British Columbia has two laws that are supposed to protect people who travel with guide dogs. The Guide Animal Act says: "A person with a disability accompanied by a guide animal has the same rights, privileges and obligations as a person not accompanied by an animal." The British Columbia Human Rights Act also prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.

The law seemed extremely clear. Graeme McCreath sought justice from the Human Rights Tribunal. After a year of filings and discussions, the matter finally went to hearing on July 14, 2015. Graeme McCreath, Bruce MacGregor, and Sean Convy the manager of Victoria Taxi had nearly a year, more than ample opportunity to produce evidence. The only documentation the taxi company produced was a vaguely worded slip from a walk in clinic that didn't mention allergies and an internally produced document noting that MacGregor had been given an "exception." Both were dated months after the 2014 incident.

Graeme McCreath and three witnesses to the event testified at the hearing. Bruce MacGregor didn't even bother to attend. Sean Convy, the manager of Victoria Taxi, represented his company, since the human rights complaint named Victoria Taxi because the company's policies allow MacGregor and other drivers to refuse service.

The facts are undisputed. Graeme McCreath is blind and was accompanied by his certified guide dog. Bruce MacGregor gave no reason for refusing to transport Graeme when the event occurred, but Sean Convy later claimed that MacGregor has both a dog phobia and a dog allergy. Since MacGregor wasn't there, he never verified Convy's claim.

This is how the tribunal described Graeme McCreath's assertion that he had suffered discrimination.

"[28] Mr. McCreath has established a prima facie case of discrimination. He has a physical disability, he suffered an adverse impact when he was denied a ride by the Taxi Driver, and he was denied the ride because he was accompanied by his guide dog."

Yet the tribunal dismissed Graeme McCreath's case!

The tribunal ruled that denial of service by one driver was a minor inconvenience since another cab arrived within a few minutes. One wonders how the tribunal would have responded to Rosa Parks. After all, it is also only slightly more inconvenient to walk a few extra steps to the back of the bus.

Since MacGregor didn't bother even to appear at the hearing, he never had to explain his actions or answer a single question about his reason for refusing to transport Graeme McCreath. Nevertheless, the tribunal ruled that MacGregor had a "disability" that entitled him to an "accommodation" from the company. Beltgens referred repeatedly to MacGregor's "disability" as an allergy based on hearsay testimony from Sean Convy. Without documentation, Beltgens voided MacGregor's responsibility to obey the law. No proof was required a claim with no substantiation of the severity of the alleged allergy was enough.

We've all met people who say they have a "vision impairment" when what they mean is that they wear reading glasses. Their "impairment" exists, but it doesn't constitute a disability as the term is generally understood. Anyone who wants to establish blindness medically must be seen by an ophthalmologist, a physician with the highest available credential for treating eye conditions. The tests are exacting all available corrective measures must be undertaken before certification of blindness can be made.

The word "allergy" also has variable definitions, ranging from mild sniffles to anaphylactic shock. Clearly anaphylactic shock is disabling. Sneezes are not. Yet the tribunal did not require that MacGregor's claim of a disabling allergy be documented by a physician specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of allergic conditions. She specifically and categorically ruled out any finding that anyone claiming an allergy exemption from transporting guide dogs should undergo treatment, calling the suggestion "untenable."

Ms. Beltgens writes: "The Tribunal has determined that an allergic reaction to animals can constitute a physical disability under the Code." She behaves as if it not only can, but that merely asserting the presence of an allergy is sufficient to claim disability status, even though the presence and severity of the allergy is unproven.

Graeme McCreath's case uncovered disturbing evidence of systemic discriminatory practices on the part of Victoria Taxi. Beltgens writes: "He (Mr. Convy, the manager of Victoria Taxi)says that, in addition to taxi drivers, the owners of a particular taxi are also entitled to place an exception to having animals in a car. He says that five of the owners of taxi cabs have also placed exceptions on their cars preventing the transport of animals." Refusing to take pet dogs is an owner's right. However, the tribunal never raised any issue concerning the legality of applying a "no animals" policy to guide dogs, even though failing to make that distinction is a clearly discriminatory practice.

Unless we challenge this decision, the British Columbia human Rights Tribunal has written a manual on how to discriminate and get away with it! You drive a taxi and don't want to vacuum dog hair? No problem. Just file an exemption so that no dogs can ride in your cab. If you want to be really sure that you can get away with denying service, go to a walk in clinic and ask the doctor on duty to give you a note that says you have "medical reasons" for not transporting dogs.

With only a little creativity, Ms. Beltgens reasoning can easily be extended to include restaurants or other businesses. "I can't serve you because I'm allergic. It's only slightly inconvenient to go next door."

We do not want to deny the legitimate claims of taxi drivers and other workers who genuinely suffer with disabling allergies. They should be accommodated by their employers. We know what genuine disability means and we're passionate about protecting all people with disabilities. That is why we are passionate about not wanting disability to be trivialized by those who frivolously and fraudulently seek to claim disability protection.

We urge you to Follow This Link and contribute what you can. Graeme McCreath was victimized twice - once when he was refused service and again, in an even more profound manner, when a tribunal set up to protect his rights actively engaged in denying them.

If people who care about guide dogs and human rights don't stand together, British Columbia may lead the way in erosion of our rights. If we stand alone here, we may fall separately all across North America.


Mary Ellen Gabias,
Canadian Federation of the Blind

P.S. We realize this story seems nearly impossible. Human Rights tribunals were set up specifically to put an end to unfair treatment on the basis of characteristics like disability. With that mandate, how could a tribunal rule the way this tribunal ruled? If you doubt this decision was based on hearsay and that the facts were massaged to permit a preordained conclusion in favor of the business interests of Victoria Taxi, we invite you to read Ms. Beltgens ruling, with all its tortured reasoning, on the BC Human Rights Tribunal web site.

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