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EOC offers support for guide dogs

By Alex Liu

Hong Kong, 25 June 2024: In a welcome move, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has issued new rules designed to enhance public awareness and foster greater acceptance of guide dogs and their visually impaired users. The watchdog’s publication, Guide Dogs: A Practical Guide, marks a significant step forward in long-running efforts to establish this invaluable service in our city.

Guide dogs are common in many developed jurisdictions. The UK, for example, has been training guide dogs for almost a century and currently has around 4,800 in service. In Hong Kong, the service is still in its early phase, with some 50 working dogs helping perform tasks for citizens with visual impairments.

It can be noted, as well, that about half of trained dogs qualify as guide dogs. The remainder provide essential support as service dogs, assisting citizens with various physical or mental needs, or as companion dogs for elderly people.

Given the exhaustive process of breeding and training dogs, coaching professional trainers, matching dogs with applicants and then providing comprehensive training for new owners, the Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association has made incredible strides in recent years. The new EOC rules complement this progress.

It should be stressed that many service providers are supportive and welcoming of guide dogs, but the EOC’s intervention has been prompted by isolated incidents of discrimination or lack of understanding. Examples include taxi drivers refusing carriage or charging extra fees and restaurants refusing entry of guide dogs.

The ECO guide provides a range of practical tips covering common situations, including: allowing dogs and their owners into venues; displaying notices that guide dogs are welcome; providing reasonable space for dogs to rest; avoiding imposing extra fees; and raising staff awareness. The rules also apply to guide dogs undergoing training and their handlers.

Though not a legal document, the guide complements the Disability Discrimination Ordinance (DDO), which offers protection to those with various forms of disability, including visual impairment. The DDO prohibits both direct and indirect discrimination. The former occurs when someone is treated less favourably than other citizens; the latter involves applying general rules which are seemingly neutral but are disproportionately detrimental to those with disabilities.

Therefore, while there is no express provision in the DDO relating to guide dogs and their users, it is potentially unlawful to prevent access to public premises or to refuse to provide goods, services and facilities. Currently, there is limited legal protection for the use of guide dogs in some designated public domains, such as access to food premises and travelling on the MTR, franchised buses and Peak Tram. However, there is no such legal protection in other sectors, such as education and employment.

Other jurisdictions have implemented laws that define and protect the use of service dogs, including guide dogs. In mainland China, for instance, the Law on Building a Barrier-free Environment came into effect in September last year, offering protection for citizens using service dogs in premises such as hotels, cinemas, sports facilities, libraries and shopping malls, and on public transport.

In Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 protects the rights of assistance dog users in access to public places, accommodation, education, employment and the like. Other common law jurisdictions, such as Canada, New Zealand and the UK provide protection through their anti-discrimination legislation.

Here in Hong Kong, the EOC is of the view that enhancing public awareness is key before consideration is given to improving existing legislation. Given the increasing prevalence of service dogs in our city, the watchdog’s initiative is to be applauded.

Alex Liu is Managing Partner of BC&C, with key areas of practice that include commercial and corporate litigation. Among his many public appointments and community outreach commitments, he is Director cum Honorary Legal Advisor of the Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association. He can be contacted at alex@boasecohencollins.com.

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