A man with autism who uses an assistance cat to help him manage in busy environments is suing Sainsbury's after it banned the pet from one of its London shops.
Ian Fenn, 51, was made to leave Sainsbury's in Clapham in March, after supermarket workers spotted his cat Chloe on his shoulder while he was shopping.
Sainsbury's says that while assistance dogs are allowed inside its stores, cats present more of a risk.
"I explained that I'm disabled, I explained that she's my support animal and he wasn't having any of it and by this point I was really upset," Mr Fenn said. "I couldn't even remember why I was in Sainsbury's and what I was there to buy."
'Excuse me sir, you can leave the cat outside': Watch the moment Ian Fenn is asked to leave Sainsbury's
Mr Fenn, a web designer from Tooting, south London, says Sainsbury's initially said he was allowed in its stores with Chloe, who wears a high-vis vest and lead labelled "Assistance cat, do not distract".
“Because having a cat like this is unusual I’m pragmatic about it so I email or contact every business I visit in advance, if I possibly can. I have done that with over 200 places.”
Mr Fenn said he contacted Sainsbury’s ahead of his visit in March, and was told it should be fine.
He said the interaction with staff upset him so much he cancelled his plans for the following day because “I didn’t have the confidence to leave the house".
He has been taking Chloe out with him for about a year, after adopting her from a cat rescue centre in Canning Town five years ago. He believes she is 12 or 13 years old.
“Chloe accompanies me to hospital, GP, and blood donation appointments,” Fenn wrote on Twitter on Friday.
“We’ve been to zoos and aquariums where biosecurity needs to be considered. We’ve been to other supermarkets. What is so special about Sainsbury’s, who originally said I was welcome in any store?”
The Equality Act 2010 puts a duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace or its practices to ensure disabled people are not at a substantial disadvantage.
A court showdown with the supermarket giant could set a new legal precedent over emotional support animals.
Disability rights lawyer Chris Fry is representing Mr Fenn in a case against Sainsbury's under the Equality Act.
"Life with Chloe makes Ian less anxious and he has fewer 'shutdowns' when he is with her. She reduces Ian’s sensory overload and enables him to feel more independent," Mr Fry said in a statement about the case.
"For example, he has been to the cinema with Chloe more times between January 2022 and May 2022 than he had been without her in the previous 33 years."
"Ian’s case is important to him, and other people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, depression and anxiety, but also encourages the courts to provide guidance for service providers, employers and landlords," he added.
"It has potential to remove conflict from everyday situations for disabled customers and for staff alike."
A Sainsbury's spokesperson said it has investigated Mr Fenn’s complaint and has "carefully considered the health and safety risks" linked to allowing cats and other emotional support animals in its supermarkets.
In a statement Sainsbury's said: "We want to be an inclusive retailer where people love to work and shop and understand that some of our colleagues and customers may need support in our stores.
"At the same time, safety is our highest priority and our colleagues are trained to balance maintaining our high food hygiene standards with supporting all our customers who shop with us.
“We are in contact with the local Environmental Health team to see if there are ways we can help Mr Fenn to visit our store without compromising this.”
Mr Fry said they hope a trial will happen within a year.
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