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On International Guide Dog Day, let's put an end to Guide Dog discrimination.

In December 2012, I was matched with my very first Guide Dog, a black, 18-month-old Labrador named Ben.

This was really exciting for me as I had been on the waiting list for more than 18 months, and I was actually starting to wonder if I would ever get that long awaited phone call telling me that a match had been found.

I have been vision impaired since birth, and had used a long cane to get around for more than half my life at that point. I knew from talking to friends with Guide Dogs that the experience of walking with a Guide Dog was markedly different from using a long cane. I knew I had a steep learning curve ahead of me, but I had had the feeling all the hard work would be worth it in the end.

I started training with Benin January of 2013. Our training ended up lasting for two months, and was far more intense and demanding than I ever imagined. For the first few weeks I was more exhausted, both physically and emotionally, than I could ever remember being before in my life. There were definitely times when I wondered if I had made the right decision getting a Guide Dog and if we’d ever get to the point where we could work well as a team.

Katie Best with her Guide Dog Ben.

Things eventually fell into place for us, and before I knew it, I was exploring new places and having new adventures, all with Ben at my side.

Read more: White Cane Day: Experiencing motherhood with vision impairment.

The one thing I’ve noticed since I’ve had Ben is the sense of freedom I have now. As a long cane user, I was never very confident, and as a result, found traveling to new places very difficult. I would often get anxious at the thought of having to go somewhere I’d never been before.

With Ben beside me, I found that new places were no longer scary, and, in fact, Ben preferred to work in new places, rather than the same old ones every day. Over time, I noticed my confidence and independence increasing. I was moving around easily and confidently, and loving it.

Unfortunately, this sense of freedom and independence was dampened slightly the first time I was refused entry to a cafe because of Ben. I was told that I couldn’t bring a dog inside, and when I explained he was a Guide Dog, I was met with confusion. The member of staff I was speaking to clearly had no idea what a Guide Dog was, or that it’s against the law to deny them entry into public places such as restaurants and cafes. I was eventually able to convince her that Ben was allowed inside, but the entire incident left a bad taste in my mouth. I felt as though I had to justify my reason for wanting to be there, instead of just being able to sit down and enjoy a meal like any other member of the public.

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Sadly that incident wasn’t the only time I’ve had to argue my way into a restaurant or cafe. In the two and a bit years Ben and I have been together, I’d say it has happened at least half a dozen times. In most cases I was able to successfully explain the laws regarding Guide Dogs in public places, but there were a couple of times when no matter what I said, I wasn’t going to be allowed in with Ben. At these times, I found it very hard not to get frustrated and angry. Being turned away from a place you’ve been looking forward to eating at, especially when the restaurant staff are not willing to believe you regarding the law, can really ruin your night.

Katie and Ben.

Because of these unpleasant experiences, when I go out to eat now, I find myself wondering whether I’ll have to justify myself before being allowed into a cafe or restaurant. It is frustrating that so many people who work in this industry aren’t aware of the laws regarding Guide Dogs.

As part of International Guide Dog Day on Wednesday 29 April, Guide Dogs NSW/ACT is launching a campaign to raise awareness of these issues, and educate restaurant and cafe staff about the laws regarding Guide Dogs. I’m really hoping that this sort of discrimination can be stamped out, so that Guide Dog users can go about their lives knowing that their freedom and independence won’t be limited.

To find out more, you can visit Guide Dogs Australia via Twitter, Facebook or on their website.