Matt retired last week. Twelve years as an active working dog has come to an end. Julie came down from Hearing Dogs for Deaf People and decommissioned him. Not that Matt knew of course. He just goes on doing what he always did. But there is one crucial difference – he no longer has a legal right of access to places like shops and restaurants. And that’s got me to thinking.
A couple of weeks before he retired we did some shopping in Waitrose. We don’t often go there anymore. They are unashamedly more expensive than other supermarkets. But we were passing and the quality of what they sell is undeniable, so I made an exception. Now, let me assure you this is not going to turn into a rant against Waitrose for the way I get treated in there as a recipient of a hearing dog. I’ve been to many Waitrose stores over many years and never once have their partners been anything less than wonderfully courteous, often taking a special interest in us, and at the very least beaming welcoming smiles at us. They really are fantastically well trained and their attitude is exemplary. Sadly, that’s not quite so true of the customers. This is only the second time a Waitrose customer has been rude to me on account of my disability, so I cannot generalise. But do I detect some sense of ‘better-than-thou-because-I-can-afford-to-shop-here? Some ‘you get a nicer class of person shopping in Waitrose and we don’t want it tainted by the likes of you’?
She came at me from behind and so caught me unawares. I have enough hearing to tell, sometimes, when someone is talking to me from behind; especially if it’s in a loud voice; especially if the tone is aggressive. I turned to see who was addressing me. Her angry eyes peered disdainfully down her raised nose at me. It was obvious without hearing the words she spoke that in this woman’s opinion disabled people were unfit to be scraped off the sole of her perfect green wellie. “Why have you brought your dog in here?” I lip read her demanding. “This is a food shop. You shouldn’t be in here.”
Shouldn’t be in here because I have a dog, I wondered, or because I’m disabled, or because you think you’re better than me? My response was instinctive and my instinct is to avoid confrontation – except when it involves disability. If I’m berated on account of my disability I tend to take it upon myself to act on behalf of the disabled community. “Read the coat,” I answered in a controlled, neutral tone, motioning down to Matt in his uniform, “and you’ll be able to answer you own question.”
She squinted down at him, a hint of a snarl on her face. “He’s a hearing dog,” I continued, “and we have every legal right to be in this store. He even has clearance from the Chartered Institute of Health Inspectors. Do you want to see his credentials?”
I was already reaching into my pocket for Matt’s ID when she responded with her nose high in the air and her eyes half closed in an attempt to preserve her sense of superiority in the face of her own crumbling confidence. “If you’ll just listen…” I lip read.
“I can’t.” I responded. “I’m deaf. That’s why I have the dog.” As I turned to the relevant page in the ID book she stormed off muttering. Clearly I was not the nicer class of shopper she was used to exchanging self-satisfied egotistical platitudes with in Waitrose. I withdrew to lick my metaphorical wounds. I hurt myself when I am ungentle.
‘For we are all the same,’ wrote Annie Lennox, ‘Underneath the shadow of the sun,’ in echo of the Apostle Paul who wrote ‘For I say to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think.’
Since Matt’s retirement I’ve not been back to Waitrose. I’ve not felt like it quite honestly, particularly as I can’t be confident he’ll be granted entry. But I did have another appointment this week that I decided to take him to. I’ve been scheduled for a cochlear implant later this year and two of the hoops to be jumped through were an MRI and a CT scans at University Hospital, Southampton. It was perhaps not surprising that I attended with a degree of trepidation as to how we would be received now that we didn’t have the law on our side. As we stepped through the door of the MRI unit, behind the reception desk sat another lady of similar age to the one who had confronted me in Waitrose. She took one look at Matt and stood up. Then she walked round the desk and said “Oh my goodness he’s wonderful! Can I talk to him?” I smiled in relief and said “Of course,” whereupon she dropped to one knee and proceeded to fuss and cuddle my retired hearing dog. Out from the scan room came a young man in hospital uniform. ‘Trouble?’ I wondered. But only until he too dropped to one knee and joined in the fuss making. Matt was having a marvellous time! The only difficulty they had was in negotiating who would look after him while I had my scan.
Afterwards we were led down to the CT scan room where quite spontaneously exactly the same thing happened. Afterwards I thanked everyone profusely for making the whole experience so pleasant and asked where I could get a coffee. The Marks & Spencer coffee shop by the entrance was recommended. So I headed for M&S holding my breath. I needn’t have worried. The same exemplary staff behaviour was in evidence. And when I asked to share a table in a rather full seating area there were near arguments over who would win the privilege of having the dog sit next to them. Matt got cuddled and fussed to a soporific trance and I was kept so busy answering everyone’s questions I barely made it through coffee and a sandwich. Any moans about a dog on food premises? Or in the hyper-hygenic environment of a hospital? You bet your sweet life there weren’t. You get a nicer class of customer in the University Hospital Southampton. And a very nice class of staff as well. In fact, there are a whole lot of very nice human beings in evidence there. Maybe I should start buying my veg there too.
Well, don’t you cry now Don’t go drowning in your tears Haven’t you learnt anything After all these years?
And all God’s little children Are beautiful and pure And you’re as good as all of them Of this you can be sure
And we are just the same Underneath the shadows of the sun And we are just the same No more no less than anyone
All the people of this lonely world Have a piece of pain inside Don’t go thinking you’re the only one Who ever broke right down and cried
That’s when the rain comes down That’s when the rain comes pouring down
And this is for the broken dreamers And this is for vacant souls And this is for the hopeless losers And this is for the helpless fools
And the burnt out and the useless And the lonely and the weak And the lost and the degraded And the too dumb to speak
And the day goes down And the day goes down That’s when the day goes falling down And the day goes down
That’s when the day goes down That’s when the day goes falling down That’s when the day goes down, falling down That’s when the day goes down That’s when the day goes down That’s when the day goes down That’s when the day goes down
Songwriters LENNOX, ANNIE / STEWART, DAVID ALLAN