Paralympian launches legal crusade for woof justice
Hendri Herbst has overcome many challenges.
Diagnosed with vitreous hyperplasia and secondary glaucoma only a few months after his birth‚ he was virtually blind by the age of 12. That didn’t stop him from pursuing the dream of representing South Africa as a Paralympian swimmer though‚ and he competed at the 2012 and 2016 Games‚ in London and Rio respectively.
Obstacles kept presenting themselves though‚ and in 2014 the Stellenbosch University masters law student says he was denied entry to a Cape winery because he was accompanied by his guide dog‚ Stan.
Now he hopes the Equality Court will finally draw the line under unfair discrimination against disabled people‚ who are often turned away from establishments because they are with guide dogs.
“It’s an ongoing issue‚” said Herbst. “You are completely reliant on your guide dog‚ and owners are subjected to this kind of humiliation on a regular basis.
“It’s like telling a wheelchair user that they’re welcome to come in‚ but only if they leave their wheelchair behind.”
Herbst is taking Durbanville Hills wine estate to court for its alleged discrimination against him in 2014. He was with his girlfriend’s family when he says they were denied entry based on a “no dogs allowed” policy.
It’s a rule often used to exclude disabled people‚ said Pieter van Niekerk of the South African Guide Dogs Association.
“A big problem in South Africa is that we don’t have legal rights as per a national disability act‚” he said. This could be about to change though.
Herbst‚ who is represented by Stellenbosch University Law Clinic‚ hopes the court will make a precedent-setting ruling that denying someone entry to an establishment because they are with a guide dog constitutes unfair discrimination.
“It’s not just me that experiences this‚ it’s a much broader issue‚” he said.
Theo Broodryk‚ head of the law clinic‚ said a positive judgment would make it difficult for restaurants‚ cinemas and shopping centres to argue against allowing in people with guide dogs.
Herbst said South Africa lagged behind many countries in terms of understanding and managing people with guide dogs.
“I’ve seen more of the world than most‚” he said. “The general attitude here towards people with disabilities needs to change. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
Deirdre Venter‚ of Webber Wentzel attorneys‚ said since she started representing the Guide Dog Association she had received “nearly daily” complaints of discrimination.
“It’s a daily struggle for these people‚ ” she said‚ adding that owners of service dogs and autism support dogs were also denied access to a variety of establishments.
“Public institutions are often reluctant to allow these owners inside‚” she said‚ referring to an ongoing case in which a blind woman was denied access to a Home Affairs branch in Mossel Bay.
“We are asking that policies be changed rather than asking for damages‚” she said. “Staff should also be trained to deal with these people.”
Stan died last year and Herbst is now accompanied by Julian‚ his new dog‚ which he says he “couldn’t wait to own”.
“In the period I was waiting for Julian‚ my independence was greatly lost. The dogs give back your dignity and we function as one entity.”
Durbanville Hills has denied the allegation of discrimination.
Before Herbst’s Equality Court case can go ahead‚ he and his legal team will have to set another precedent. Theirs seeks to become the first South African case to proceed following the lapsing of the initial claim‚ with their argument centred on the claim that “a sheriff failed to timeously submit a complaint”.