A visually-impaired man with his guide dog waits for the lift. The door opens and a woman inside the lift retreats in shock and hides behind another woman, gripping the latter’s shoulders and using her as a shield. As the man attempts to enter, she inches back even though the cabin is at full capacity.
That was just one of the reactions I observed from my time shadowing a guide dog user, 57-year-old Gary Lim, and his furry companion, Jordie.
A woman posted on Facebook in February sharing some of the challenges and discrimination she faced as a guide-dog user. People would shout at her when she walked into a food court, refuse to take the lift with her, and an old man even complained about her guide dog to the bus driver.
Speaking to The Pride, Lee Sutton, deputy chairman of Guide Dogs Singapore Limited (GDS), attributed this aversion to lack of awareness, citing that some members of the public do not know these dogs are “specially bred and trained, are well-behaved and are not bound by the same legislation as pets”.
She added: “They do not know that guide dogs, unlike pet dogs, are allowed by law to enter all public places. The distinction between a guide dog which is a working dog (or mobility aid) and a pet is critical.”
With only seven guide dogs (five are under GDS) in Singapore, it’s no wonder that there’s a lack of understanding about them.
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Getting a guide dog is tough. It costs anywhere between $42,000 and $45,000; and both the user and the dog have to undergo a series of training sessions before they’re paired. The whole process – from the time the puppies are assessed on their ability to be guide dogs to the pairing – takes between 20 and 22 months.
And it’s only in the last few years that accessibility for guide dogs has improved and Singaporeans have become more accepting of guide dogs in shared spaces. In fact, the first guide dog arrived in Singapore in 1982 but was sent back after two years due to the lack of acceptance from the public.
Since 2006, the government has supported the use of dogs in public spaces in the form of two rules; one under the Environmental Public Health Act and another under the Rapid Transit Systems Act.
MUIS – the Islamic religious council in Singapore, even released a guide dog advisory in 2010 which permits visually-impaired Muslims to use guide dogs.
Curious to know what it’s like to walk in the pawprints of a guide dog, I accompanied Gary, who is an ambassador of GDS, as he commuted to work.
Here’s what I observed that day.
1. The fear of dogs is real
The incident I described at the start? It didn’t end there.
After the lift door closed, the woman who was so appalled by the presence of Gary’s guide dog Jordie announced indignantly to no one in particular: “I got bitten by a dog before.” Once she got out of the lift, she scampered to the other end of the platform at a speed that would have given The Flash a run for his money.
Gary told me he had come to terms with episodes like this, having experienced worse. He recounted instances where he could not get into a lift because people were afraid of Jordie. He said he once had to wait 15 minutes just to get a ride.
When we went into a cafe for lunch, the waitress freaked out and started telling us that dogs were not allowed and threw us dirty looks. Her colleague and I attempted to explain that it was a guide dog but she couldn’t hear me over her own voice and paranoia. She only relented after I raised my voice slightly and emphasised that Jordie was a guide dog.
2. But rejoice, because we’re not all bad
Just as I was losing faith at the lack of consideration we’d encountered, an act of compassion and understanding occurred.
When Gary boarded the train, a man who had a foldable bike with him immediately vacated a priority seat.
A young woman seated across Gary was glancing curiously in his direction. The train then pulled into a station and a young man walked in and stepped across Jordie, which drew a furrow on the young woman’s brows.
I approached her to ask if there was something about Jordie that made her feel uncomfortable. She explained: “No, I’ve actually seen the same dog three times before. I just didn’t like that the man stepped over the dog and hit it without apologising.”
While I felt it was probably just an honest mistake that the young man had overlooked, I was touched that the young woman actually felt upset for Jordie.
At the bus stop, two elderly women greeted us with smiles as they moved to another bench to make way for Gary and Jordie. One of them, 62-year-old homemaker Serene Khong, said that she has seen Jordie around and recognised him as a guide dog because of a video she once watched which helped her to understand his purpose better.
3. Alas, the road to “hell” can be paved with good intentions
Guide dogs don’t become guide dogs overnight. It takes lots of training for them to become class ready.
A part of their training takes place in MRT stations, familiarising them with the infrastructure so they can recognise facilities like gantries, lifts and escalators. GDS even had a dog who was afraid of the escalator.
It requires immense concentration to be a guide dog and the slightest thing can distract them. Even my presence became a distraction to Jordie when I stood too close to Gary.
So to the kind-hearted, and dog lovers, don’t feel slighted if guide dog users politely refuse your help. No, they’re not being stoic or proud. They understand your good intentions but repeatedly offering to help them could distract their guide dog.
In Gary’s case, a Good Samaritan stopped to help him on the escalator and offered to escort him to his destination. Gary thanked him and declined politely. While all this was going on, Jordie couldn’t get his bearings right and kept veering off his path.
Think back to the last time you tried to focus on an intense task in a place loaded with distractions. Now imagine a guide dog – an animal with keener senses than humans – navigating a crowd, trying to locate the escalator, finding the safest route possible for their user and dealing with chatter, and you get the picture.
This is also why we should not pat guide dogs while they’re at work, no matter how adorable or cuddly they look.
4. Some empathy, please. Guide dogs play an important role.
During the commute, I asked Gary what’s the difference between using a cane and a guide dog. “Using a guide dog is easier,” he said.
He continued: “The white cane is an inanimate object while the dog is biological. He is able to look out for potential dangers or obstacles and avoid these or stop if necessary.”
GDS also added that the guide dogs are trained to lead their users from one destination to another, which is very helpful in preventing users from walking into danger or traffic; especially when they’re in big open spaces without any markings to guide them.
When we were crossing the road at the entrance of Ngee Ann Polytechnic, I got to witness Jordie in his element. Just as Gary stepped forward, a car turned onto the road and headed towards him, with no sign of slowing down. Jordie immediately stopped and Gary followed suit; avoiding the car as it passed by harmlessly.
It all happened so fast, I barely had time to react.
My journey with Gary and Jordie may have been brief, but I learnt so much. I noticed that while people seem to fall over themselves to be kind and gracious to a blind person with a cane, their reaction to a blind man with a guide dog seemed colder and harsher.
Why do we define the visually impaired by their choice of assistance? However much you may dislike dogs, the fact that a service dog immensely aids and protects a blind person should inspire you to exercise some empathy and compassion.
Sutton encourages the public to be friendly to guide dogs and politely speak up for guide dog users if you see them encountering difficulties with rude or unkind people.
“As Singapore moves towards becoming a more gracious society, we hope to continue to raise awareness and acceptance for guide dog use and empower more visually impaired people to realise their potential in life,” she said.
If you’d like to support their cause, you can either donate or volunteer here.