Monday 16 January 2012

Opening eyes to guide dogs for the blind

Let's be more accepting of guide dogs in our midst
By Tommy Koh, The Sunday Times, 15 Jan 2012

Esme and Kendra are two dogs. Esme was born in Australia and Kendra in the US. They are blond labrador retrievers. They are, however, not pet dogs, but guide dogs. Their owners are blind.

Esme belongs to Ms Cassandra Chiu, a counsellor and psychotherapist. Kendra belongs to Mr Kua Cheng Hock, a former teacher who runs a small business selling electronic devices to assist the blind.

Apart from the difficulty of secure employment, one of the biggest challenges faced by the blind in Singapore is mobility. Singaporeans are familiar with the white cane, and most of us would respond positively when we see a blind person with a white cane.

A blind person walking with a white cane would encounter problems. Because he cannot see, he could easily trip or knock against objects and hurt himself. A blind person, accompanied by a trained guide dog, would not stumble or knock against such objects because the dog would help the blind person navigate around the obstacles. A guide dog, therefore, enables a blind person to walk with confidence. It is very empowering and gives the blind greater mobility.

Esme and Kendra are the only guide dogs in Singapore. Because of their rarity, most Singaporeans are not familiar with them. Guide dogs for the blind have been around since World War I. The first guide dog training schools were established in Germany during WWI, to enhance the mobility of veterans who were blinded in combat. The United States followed suit in 1929. In 1934, Britain's Guide Dogs for the Blind began operation. The movement subsequently spread to many countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia.

In many countries, guide dogs are exempted from laws and regulations that forbid the entry of animals to public places, including restaurants. In some countries, such as the US, Australia, Brazil and South Korea, laws have been enacted to allow guide dogs to accompany their blind masters to all public places.

What about Islam, which regards dogs as unclean animals? In 2003, the Shariah Council of Britain ruled that the ban on dogs does not apply to those used for guide work. More recently, a mosque in Britain even gave permission to a blind boy to go to the mosque accompanied by his guide dog. Naturally, the dog has to wait outside the mosque for its owner.

What about Singapore? The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) has issued a guideline allowing visually impaired customers, accompanied by guide dogs, access to halal restaurants, with certain provisos. These restaurants should have a designated area for such customers. The dog should be harnessed and kept at his side at all times. If the guide dog needs to be fed, disposable wares should be used, to prevent any cross-mixing with cutlery used for the preparation and serving of halal food. Muis is, therefore, supportive of guide dogs.

What is the policy of the Singapore Government towards guide dogs? Speaking in Parliament on Sept 19, 2005, then-Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan said: 'The MCYS (Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports) supports the use of guide dogs as another form of mobility guide for blind persons. Guide dogs can help blind persons to negotiate their way in public places, so that they can better integrate into mainstream society. The dogs also provide valuable companionship for blind persons.'

Are guide dogs allowed on our trains? The answer is yes. Guide dogs are allowed access to bus interchanges. They are also allowed on public buses as long as they do not cause discomfort to other passengers due to proximity. In one instance, a bus passenger told Ms Chiu that she was not comfortable sitting near Esme. Ms Chiu moved to another seat. Is it too much for me to suggest that a sighted and able-bodied commuter should volunteer to offer his seat to the blind commuter?

The National Environment Agency has granted licensees of food establishments the discretion to allow guide dogs on their premises, so long as they are harnessed and kept at their owner's side at all times.

I would like to appeal to the owners and managers of our office buildings, shopping malls, hotels and food establishments to kindly consider allowing Ms Chiu and Esme, and Mr Kua and Kendra, access to their premises.

At the moment, there are still too many places in Singapore that do not allow entry to guide dogs. This is largely due to ignorance rather than ill will. Most Singaporeans are unaware of the rules governing guide dogs.

I am happy to report that the FairPrice and Cold Storage supermarket chains have recently decided to allow guide dogs to enter their premises. I am also grateful to the management of Tanglin Shopping Centre for allowing Ms Chiu to take Esme to work there. I hope that their decisions will encourage others to emulate them.

In the coming years, there will be many more guide dogs in Singapore. The Guide Dogs Association of the Blind is raising funds to help interested and suitable blind Singaporeans to be trained for, and acquire, guide dogs.

I would also like to appeal to the Singapore public to be kind to our disabled, including the blind accompanied by their guide dogs.

Let us make Singapore a compassionate society. A compassionate society should be sensitive to and supportive of our disabled.

The writer is patron of the Guide Dogs Association of the Blind and a special adviser to the Institute of Policy Studies.

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