Sam Agars chats with two long-term DBers in a bid to understand what life with a guide dog is like, and what the community can do to help make their lives just that little bit easier.
For Jean Lim and Tim Henderson, becoming the first two Discovery Bay residents to own guide dogs was life changing. Jean has had her dog Bella since February of last year and Tim partnered up with Dax in July, with both dogs trained by Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association (HKGDA).
According to Brian Francis of the HKGDA, there were no guide dogs in Hong Kong at all from the mid-1970s up until 2011. Rather incredibly, the number of guide dogs currently in use stands at just 12, with another five to graduate this year.
While reaping the benefits, both Jean and Tim have faced uncomfortable situations as they became accustomed to living with a guide dog, often things that could have been easily avoided if just for a greater awareness among the community.
New lease on life
Both Jean and Tim suffer from the same condition – retinitis pigmentosa – which is a degenerative eye disease that will eventually render them completely blind. Tim is currently operating with 20 degrees of vision, a third of that enjoyed by a person with full sight. Jean says her condition is not yet as advanced as Tim’s, but that she is starting to lose her central vision and has only a very small area of tunnel vision.
While many take being able simply to go for a walk for granted, before Bella, Jean had one of her favourite pastimes taken away from her.
“When my eyes were better, I was able to walk around DB,” she says. “I much prefer walking than taking the bus. I had stopped for a long time and now I have Bella I can walk instead of taking the bus. I can take my son to school and when he is running, I can run after him.”
Tim finds he is able to go about his business with more confidence than before Dax arrived on the scene. “It’s been a comfort level,” he says. “With the white cane, it’s just not comfortable when people see me with it. They either think I’m completely blind or they don’t know at all what the cane means.”
Shout out to dog owners
In Hong Kong, the Disabilities Discrimination Ordinance says that visually-impaired people accompanied by guide dogs can enter any public place, including parks and restaurants. Unfortunately a significant slice of the population is unaware of the rights of guide dog users, leading to significant confusion and uncomfortable situations. According to Tim, a lot of the trouble he has faced has centred around the fact that a lot of people simply don’t understand what blindness and visual impairment is.
“People have a preconceived idea that if you are using a cane, you’re blind, or if you are using a dog, you’re blind,” he says. “They don’t understand what visual impairment is in that people with visual impairment, such as myself, can still function in some aspects.”
One of the biggest problems Tim faces in DB is unleashed dogs and their owners not realising how tough it makes things for him. “People look at me and go ‘well, you can see’ and I go ‘yeah, I can see straight but I have terrible peripheral vision so I can’t see another dog coming,’” he says. “That is where the frustrating part is, people’s perception of what my ailment is. I just want people to go ‘hey, he can’t react quickly so let’s keep our dogs on a leash’.
“My son wants to be with me when I take my dog out, but if there is another dog around off the leash, it creates a problem. I worry that I wouldn’t be able to act fast enough if my son were to get tangled between the dogs.”
Given the safety issue, Tim decided to move Hong Kong-side at the end of February. “I have found that there are too many dog owners unwilling to put their dogs on leashes and I cannot risk injury to my son or Dax,” he says.
“There’s a by-law here in Hong Kong, you have to keep your dogs on a leash,” Tim adds. “But I don’t want to be the bad guy and I understand that people want to help their dogs enjoy life. I was just trying to get people, even in my building, to understand but… A lot of my neighbours have been really accepting, but some just ignored the situation all together, they just didn’t get it.”
Guide dog users’ rights
Jean’s major issues have revolved around restaurants – although she did also face some problems at schools in the early days – again due to people simply not knowing the rights of guide dog users.
“Going to restaurants is the biggest challenge,” she says. “Often the frontline workers have a strong idea of not letting dogs into the restaurant and sometimes we have to demand to see the manager.”
Jean has noticed improvements i many of DB’s restaurants but is still shocked by the reaction of some members of the public. “One more resistance is actually from people with dogs,” she says. “When I tell them that I need to bring Bella into the restaurant with me, they’re like ‘how can you take Bella in, I leave my dog outside, you should leave your dog outside.’”
Tim also faced a lot of issues on buses, when he first got Dax, something he says was again purely down to a lack of awareness and has eased since the HKGDA met with Hong Kong Resorts.
Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association, www.guidedogs.org.hk