Graeme McCreath stood in the B.C. Court of Appeal, his German shepherd guide dog at his feet, and asked the judges to imagine being refused hotel or rental accommodation or having taxis deliberately pass by.
“Imagine not having access to any public place or even service in a restaurant,” McCreath said Tuesday.
“All these things have happened to blind people, not just once, but many times even though we have stringent clear laws protecting the vulnerable.”
McCreath is appealing a decision by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, which dismissed his complaint against Victoria Taxi over an incident in July 2014. A legally blind man who works as a physiotherapist, McCreath filed the complaint after the dispatched driver refused to pick him up. The driver said he was allergic to dogs.
The public gallery was filled with people with visual impairments and their guide dogs. McCreath’s supporters listened intently as he described how demeaning, hurtful and humiliating it is to be denied services that are available to others because of his disability.
“It reminds me of what black people went through in the States,” he said.
“The idea that discrimination is just an inconvenience I find a very poor approach to the whole thing.”
McCreath and his friends were refused a ride on the evening of July 15, 2014. By coincidence, they were able to flag down another Victoria Taxi driver dropping off customers across the street.
At the tribunal hearing, the taxi company said McCreath hadn’t told the dispatcher he had a guide dog. The driver in question had filed an “exception” in accordance with a Victoria Taxi policy excusing him from transporting animals.
The tribunal decided Victoria Taxi had demonstrated “a bona fide reasonable justification for its, albeit very brief, denial of service.”
McCreath’s lawyer, Laurie Armstrong, told the court that blind people should be able to take any cab without identifying that they are blind, saying right of access is built into the Guide and Service Dog Act.
“Someone in a wheelchair doesn’t have to phone a restaurant and ask them to put a ramp out,” Armstrong said.
If McCreath advises the dispatcher he has a guide dog, he often has to wait longer for a taxi because of the smaller pool of drivers who take dogs, Armstrong said.
The dogs, which are trained and certified, sit on the floor of the cab and wear a harness.
Outside court, Oriano Belusic, who was with McCreath the night of the incident, said it is shameful that the tribunal is arguing that it is reasonable to exclude people who are visually impaired.
“The real tragedy of this thing is that the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal is actually doing the very opposite of what they are supposed to do. Rather than protecting access rights and human rights, they’re actually fighting on the side of making it look reasonable to discriminate,” Belusic said. “People don’t understand on an emotional level what it is to be denied equality or service. It can only last a second, but if you’re subjected to it, you would know what he’s fighting for.”
Visually impaired people are vulnerable because they have to rely on others for their transportation, McCreath said.
“You have to rely on other people to be fair about things, and they’re not. We decided to try and take some action,” said McCreath, adding that he has run out of money fighting this legal battle.
Tribunal lawyer Katherine Hardie told the court it has to determine whether the tribunal’s reasons were unreasonable.
The court has reserved its decision.