Sweden is known for its liberal views and general tolerance. But not, it seems, when it comes to rights for blind people with guide dogs as Verity Smith has found out.
I am blind and visit Sweden regularly because I have a Swedish horse and a Swedish dressage trainer. Frequently I travel by plane with my guide dog, Kay, to get to Malmo in southern Sweden. Kay is a working guide dog, trained at great expense: she provides me with the basic help that allows me to be independent and to live a normal life without relying on other people.
But wonderful Kay has revealed a dark side to the Swedish persona that I never expected. I have discovered, through experience that in general Sweden does not welcome, accept or acknowledge guide dogs in any public places. The guide dog is treated in the same way as every other dog and refused access to bars, restaurants, shops etc. Here are some examples.
- I have had to stand at the door of a take away and shout my order then stand outside in minus 10 degrees while the food is brought to me.
- In good weather when people are eating outside on the pavement I have been refused permission to sit down.
- In a pub, I have been allowed to sit in a corner but told I would have to leave if anyone complained.
- Numerous restaurants/cafes have simply refused entry.
- Supermarkets have refused entry because they sell meat (a complete ignorance about guide dog training), the suggestion being made that I tie the dog up outside
- Refused membership to a gym.
This means that in Sweden I am unable to live a normal life without the help of friends. The contrast to the quality of my life in, for example, Britain, France and Spain is extraordinary. So why does this state of affairs exist in Sweden, a nation recognised for even-handedness, design excellence and many other qualities?
Under current Swedish legislation, guide dogs are allowed entry to restaurants, food stores etc BUT at the discretion of the owner or his/her representative. Being randomly refused entry at the whim of another person is a decision that would be illegal if that decision for refusal rested on the issue of colour or creed. Swedish law should protect the disabled in the same way.
Digging more deeply, I found that there is no common approach to this problem under European Union law. This may come in the future. Guide dogs for the Blind, in Britain, have raised the issue of access with the World Blind Union's Swedish representative, Kiki Nordstrum. Nordstrum says: 'We have to consider the many immigrants that think that dogs in general are dirty animals.' Sweden is a multicultural society and hopefully it respects the basic human rights of all individuals.
However if the blind person is refused access for fear of offending cultural sensitivities then, carried to its logical conclusion, the bars and restaurants throughout Sweden could refuse to serve alcohol, pork etc for fear of offending cultural sensitivities. Britain has very large cultural diversity but because entry of guide dogs is obligatory, and backed by the power of the law, access is accepted and respected by every British citizen regardless of race/ creed or religion.
Often the reason given for refusing access to guide dogs is the conflict of interest with people with allergies. Nordstrum says: 'We could have worked as hard as those with allergies have done, but it is costly and we have very few, not nearly 300 guide dogs and we do not have the resources for campaigns like this.' I have great sympathy for any person with a health problem but I am saddened to hear from a Swedish person that, in Sweden, rights appear to be a matter of costs and that, lacking finance, minorities go unheard.
There are approximately 25,000 guide dogs in Britain but the general public rarely encounters them. In the whole of Sweden there are only 300 guide dogs (I understand there is one Swedish guide dog in Malmo) and therefore the chance of a clash of interest is minimal. If a person with an allergy should meet a guide dog then in a civilised society one would expect the matter to be easily resolved.
I do not appear to be blind but carry a card with a photo which identifies me as registered blind and Kay as a registered guide dog. Is there a similar card system in Sweden for people with allergies? Lars Loow, Sweden's Disability Ombudsman says: 'The regulation in restaurants and grocery stores for guide dogs will be useful the day we do get reasonable accommodation into our legislation. But that will take another two or three years, if DPO's even want it to be there.' I am shocked that the Disabilty Ombudsman is not more concerned about the situation.
The problem for blind people with guide dogs exists now. Having my guide dog is not a matter of choice it is a necessity, in the same way as a wheelchair is for other disabilities. Without my guide dog's help I would be housebound and that would amount to a virtual jail sentence. Guide dogs are trained for up to two years at great expense. Their training is rigorous. They never eat unless specifically told. They go to the lavatory only on command, never bark and are 200 per cent obedient. In fact, they are totally remarkable.
A cane can only work in a known environment but a dog remembers routes, finds traffic crossings and doors, indicates stairs and allows the blind person to navigate unknown environments. In London, my guide dog has allowed me complete independence. With my guide dog giving me that important freedom of choice I live a normal life.
I love Sweden and its people but am still shocked to discover that my life is a lottery of other people's prejudices or lack of knowledge. It is frustrating and deeply saddening to begin to realise that with Kay as my guide, I could not survive in Sweden. Please Sweden live up to your reputation as a protector of human rights and change the law.