By Rob McLaren
As I arrive at the Nourish café in the Lord Hope building, there is little indication that Fraser Kane is any different to any of the other students in there. For the fourth-year law student, our interview is perhaps a welcome break from the chaotic world of deadlines and dissertations.
Nelson, a guide dog, sits patiently at his feet, himself enjoying the extended rest.
Yet, over the past six months, Fraser achieved something which no other student could even comprehend: he took on McDonald’s – the multinational fast food chain synonymous with student hangovers, and which last year reported profits of over £330m in the UK alone – in a legal case.
Fraser, from Largs, has Stargardt’s disease, a condition which causes partial sight loss and affects one in every 10,000 people.
“I’ve got no central vision which means I don’t have any detail, so I can’t read things normally,” he says. “I’ve got peripheral vision, so I can build up a picture of what’s around me, but if a car is coming straight towards me, I won’t see it.”
Stargardt’s develops in early life, and for Fraser, the symptoms began when he was in primary six: “I lost my eyesight over lunchtime. It was genetic, it was due to happen, but because I was so young, I didn’t notice it happening at the time. I just came in after lunch and realised I couldn’t read the board.”
As his sight gradually deteriorated, Fraser admits it brought challenges. But it never deterred him while in school, where he competed internationally in swimming and track cycling.
After excelling in his studies, Fraser began pursuing a law degree, and was immediately drawn to Strathclyde: “I’d heard that the Disability and Wellbeing Service here has a really good reputation. The campus as well is great for Nelson, because when we’re going between buildings, he gets a lot of work, and there are a lot of grassy spaces which is ideal for him.”
University life brought with it its own obstacles, particularly due to the high amounts of reading which Fraser admits takes him “twice as long to read, with the same amount of time to do it in.”
Still, he refused to let the additional challenges hinder him, and last summer he was offered a placement at Freeths, a national commercial law firm, at the firm’s Oxford offices.
It was during that placement that Fraser experienced a life-changing event.
“I was visiting friends in London, and when we got to Paddington, we decided to grab a bite to eat at McDonald’s. At first everything was absolutely fine: we played rock-paper-scissors to decide who would pay the bill, we ordered our meal, and the woman who served us was exemplary.
“My friend was waiting at the counter for the food and he spotted an empty table, so I went over to grab it, and as I bent over to cut Nelson’s harness, I heard someone shout ‘get out!’”
The man shouting was one of the store’s managers. Fraser informed him that he was with a guide dog and had a legal right to be in the premises, but the manager refused to abide and demanded Fraser leave the store.
Fraser protested to a policeman who was coincidentally in McDonald’s at the time, but was told there was nothing that could be done: “I offered to show him the Equality Act but he said it was a civil, not a legal, matter and that I should complain to McDonald’s.”
The Equality Act 2010 stipulates that disabled people have the same right to use a service as anyone else, and that businesses should make reasonable adjustments to accommodate assistance dogs. But Fraser says that because the act is left intentionally vague, the law simply does not work: “You can have a policeman sitting beside you, and your rights in front of you, but you can’t enforce them.”
“I was stood shaking. My friend is a law grad from Strathclyde, and he couldn’t believe it was happening.” Eventually, the policeman agreed to speak to the manager, who promptly argued for “five to ten minutes” before finally agreeing that Fraser could stay. But the damage had already been done.
“It had gone on for so long and had taken a policeman to get through to them just because he was wearing a uniform. The manager never even apologised at the time.
“I went home and was quite distraught. I knew that this happened to a lot of guide dog owners, but I never expected it to happen in a McDonald’s of all places, in London especially.”
Fraser complained to McDonald’s customer service, but received only an apology, at which point he phoned the Equality and Human Rights Advisory Service, who told him he didn’t have a case – because the manager had eventually agreed he could stay.
“But I was adamant I had been discriminated against. I was a bit wary of taking on legal costs, especially being a student, so I decided to go alone.”
After several failed attempts to make McDonald’s retrain their staff, Fraser was told by the company that he had been refused entry because Nelson prompted a hygiene issue. Looking at the extremely well-kempt dog laying beside him, I realise that this is incredibly farfetched.
With the help of his local MP, Patricia Gibson, Fraser received an apology from the CEO of McDonald’s UK and Ireland, Paul Pomroy – which admitted he had been subjected to an access refusal.
“At that point I was like right, now I’ve got it in writing.”
By that point, the first semester of Fraser’s fourth year was well underway, and yet he had a legal case against a giant international corporation looming over him. Over the following month, Fraser began to utilise his legal expertise in his favour, placing deadlines on McDonald’s to respond to him.
“It was all about putting pressure on them, because they wanted to push it aside. I was making sure they knew I was serious. Them giving me an apology doesn’t change anything for anyone else.”
With the deadline imminent, Fraser threatened to take McDonald’s to court. An hour later, he received an e-mail from the company’s insurers advising him they were taking on the case.
After several gruelling weeks of negotiations, Fraser achieved his goal: McDonald’s agreed to review its policies and retrain its staff. In addition, Fraser received an undisclosed compensation sum, potentially of up to £9000.
“It was very stressful. I had a massive multinational company against me, a student. I didn’t know what strings they were going to pull, I didn’t know whether they would take me to court, I certainly didn’t want to. But I remained confident in my argument, and when I asked them to justify it, they couldn’t.”
After donating £250 to the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, Fraser’s story appeared in The Times, being read by thousands.
“Hopefully it raises awareness by sending out a message, that no matter how big a company is and no matter how much they think they can brush it aside, it’s not acceptable. That I can stand up for my rights and they’re not going to walk all over me.”