Supporting something special
by Julie Cutting at April 27, 2018
Speaking in an interview in 2012, the patron of Guide Dogs Singapore Ltd (GDS), Professor Tommy Koh, suggested a new ambition for his country: “Let us make Singapore a compassionate society”. He was referring to a lack of awareness and acceptance surrounding those living with blindness and visual impairments in Singapore.
Sadly, this issue still remains today and was brought to our attention when GDS became one of our clients. After spending time with them and learning about their work, we were inspired to join in their mission to change perceptions, so we organised an outreach event, supported by The Co. at The Brightside – a popular bar in Duxton Hill.
Among the reasons for low awareness and acceptance is a general lack of understanding of the difficulties faced by blind and visually impaired people. Not being able to get around easily isn’t just an enormous physical struggle; it also takes an immense toll on mental health and wellbeing. A lack of confidence and independence causes many blind and visually impaired people to stay at home, often leading to loneliness, anxiety and in many cases, depression.
We wanted to talk openly about these challenges at our outreach event and show how much of a difference a guide dog can make. We were joined by Alvin and his guide dog Seretta, who shared their story. Alvin’s “sweetie” Seretta has transformed his life, allowing him to go to places that would otherwise be too dangerous to visit.
“It’s hard for some people to understand how difficult it is for a person with visual impairments to get around safely – even with a walking cane. Seretta helps me to travel independently and allows me visit places that were too hazardous before I had her. She is more than just a guide dog for me. She’s a special friend that I could never put a value on.”
It was truly inspiring to see first hand how successful a guide dog partnership can be. However, parts of Alvin and Seretta’s story were also difficult to hear and highlighted the negative perceptions of guide dogs in Singaporean society. We heard that on one occasion, when trying to enter an elevator with Seretta, the pair were met with screams and refused entry by the people inside. And despite being legally permitted to enter food establishments, shopping malls and public transport, many businesses will still not accept Alvin as a customer.
Why does this happen? It’s partly an issue of awareness. There are currently only 8 guide dogs working in the whole country, so seeing one is a rare experience for most people. Combined with a lack of education, people understandably fail to realise that guide dogs are very different to pet dogs.
Each guide dog undertakes two years of specialist training before being paired with a handler. During this time, they learn to ignore distractions (such as food and noises), go to toilet on command and settle peacefully in public. If more people knew this, they would feel assured that a guide dog is not dangerous, unclean or disruptive in any way.
Convincing businesses to accept guide dogs is an important step in building a compassionate society. It’s also imperative that people learn what they can do personally to help a blind or visually impaired person.
During the evening our GDS colleagues blindfolded two members of the audience and gave them walking canes. They were then partnered with two volunteers, who were taught how to guide their blindfold partners by leading with their elbows, describing their surroundings and giving instructions. This exercise not only taught the group how to assist a visually impaired person, but also gave an, albeit limited, understanding of the difficulties they face. After removing their blindfolds, the participants described the experience as challenging, frightening and confusing.
As the evening drew to a close, we reflected on what we had learnt.
We live and work in Singapore, yet many of us hadn’t previously considered how challenging life is for the visually impaired in our country – whether navigating the streets or negotiating their way through negativity. Spending time with Alvin and Seretta showed us just how important guide dogs are, and the blindfolding exercise – although short – made a lasting impression on the people in the room. We all left with a better understanding of how we can make a difference to people’s lives.
Andrew Clarke, from CrescoData contacted us after the event to say “I think it’s a great cause with so much opportunity here in Singapore. Really appreciate your organization and generosity in sponsoring the event.”
For us, this is a huge leap forward. Our evening together changed perceptions, increased awareness and raised SG$816 towards GDS’ goal of SG$100,000. When they reach their target, this money will be used to train two new guide dogs to transform the lives of two more people in Singapore – and every cent counts.
If you’d like to help Guide Dogs Singapore Ltd and want to make Singapore a compassionate society, please visit https://giving.sg.gds/igdd.