Assistance animal advocate pleads for increased awareness

Disability advocate Andrew McGowan.

PORT Stephens Council heard an impassioned address at their inaugural meeting of 2024 from an advocate for disability rights – more specifically the rights of access for individuals who engage the service of an assistance animal.

Andrew McGowan gained a measure of national attention in 2016 when he walked the distance from Kempsey to Sydney with his support dog Chelsea to raise awareness of the needs of victims of violent crimes, of which he is a survivor.

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Since that time Andrew, and his ever-present assistance animals, have lived a transient life, always seeking to educate others on the needs for people living with special needs.

His address to Port Stephens Council during the Pubic Access portion of the council session was stern in tone, as he expressed disappointment with the lack of awareness amongst the community in general with regard to assistance animals, and the lack of public signage informing the public that individuals travelling with assistance animals are permitted to keep them by their side in circumstances where other companion animals may be restricted.

“I’ve come to talk to you about assistance animals and their importance in the lives of those people with disabilities… and unfortunately your lack of signage that acknowledges our animals right to travel with us, wherever we go.”

During his address Andrew referred often to his own painful experiences and the ways in which his own assistance animals have, at times, “literally saved” his life.

He mentioned his meeting with former PM Scott Morrison, and current connection with Greens Senator Jordan Steele-John, and his ongoing mission to see a change in societal attitude towards people such as himself.

At moments speaking with overwhelming emotion, pain and anger, Andrew insisted that a lack of signage that indicates the rights of access for companion animals constitutes a violation of state legislation.

“What I don’t want is people (with assistance animals) in this community being afraid to take them places.”

Andrew’s appearance was lauded by those Councillors present, with both Cr Giacomo Arnott and Cr Jason Wells thanking him for sharing his story, and seeking to clarify the responsibility of the council in this matter.

Referring to his insistence that signs in the area should be altered within six weeks, Cr Arnott asked: “You’ve laid down a deadline for us… does the Disability Act require council to have that signage?

“I’m interested in seeing that our council takes accessibility and its legal requirements very seriously.”

Cr Wells went on to suggest that the video of Andrew’s address be allowed as a submission to the draft Community Wellbeing Strategy, on public display until February 25.

“One of the key objectives in the draft strategy is around developing and improving positive attitudes in the wider community towards people with a disability.”

With regards to Andrew’s suggestion of a breach of legislation, a council spokesperson told News of the Area, “We’ve been in contact with Mr McGowan after his public access at the last Council meeting seeking the additional information he mentioned.

“Once the additional information is received we’ll assess it accordingly.”

By Lindsay HALL

Assistance dogs can make huge impacts in the lives of people with disabilities. Photo: Assistance Dogs Australia.

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