IN her 1933 essay Three Days to See, Helen Keller (1880-1968) described what she would do if she were suddenly to have vision: “I should like to look into the loyal, trusting eyes of my dogs.”
Keller, a renowned American author who was hearing and vision impaired, was also famously quoted saying: “What a blind person needs is not a teacher but another self.”
In many cases, we should allow the guide dogs to be “another self” for the visually impaired.
Malaysia’s commitment to protecting the vulnerable members of society was clearly visible when it became one of the first signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Optional Protocol in 2007, which culminated with the passing of the Persons With Disability Act, 2008.
However, it is unfortunate to note that the Act made no mention of access to guide dogs which are important “tools” for the visually impaired.
Although uncommon in Malaysia, guide dogs are legal assistants in many countries. Like “eyes” to the blind, a guide dog helps visually impaired people navigate through obstacles.
Guide dogs give a blind person more confidence, friendship and security. Blind people who use guide dogs have increased confidence when going about their day-to-day life and are comforted by a constant friend.
It was reported that the Sunway Pyramid shopping mall is one of the few malls in Malaysia that allow the blind and their guide dogs to walk around. Meanwhile, most taxis and all public transport do not allow guide dogs on board.
A few years ago, Stevens Chan Kum Fai, a Malaysian who is visually impaired, created a stir when he walked with his guide dog, Lashawn, to raise awareness on how a trained guide dog could help persons like him to be mobile (pic).
Chan hoped that his walkabout with his guide dog would impress upon the Government the need to review the Persons with Disability Act to include access to guide dogs in public places.
In his video titled “Are You Blind? The Embarrassing Truth About Malaysians”, Chan and Lashawn were shown being denied access to taxis and buses, and ultimately told to leave a shopping complex in Kuala Lumpur.
There is a pressing need to foster the participation and dialogue among various stakeholders, including government, civil society organisations and the scientific and academic communities, to promote awareness towards the plight of the visually impaired in Malaysia, especially when it comes to access of the visually impaired to guide dogs.
While we do take cognisance of the fact that we are living in a Muslim majority country where issues pertaining to ownership of guide dogs by Muslims may be sensitive, we should at the same time take note of the Syariah Council in the United Kingdom back in 2003 which ruled that the ban on dogs did not apply to guide dogs. In effect, it meant that a visually impaired Muslim was able to be in possession of a guide dog in order to go about his day-to-day routine.
What the visually impaired need today is not sympathy but an opportunity to function like any other able member of society. They seek to contribute to the nation but in order to do that, they must be able to manoeuvre our streets with ease.
Shopping malls, eateries, offices and residential properties must be open to the idea of allowing the visually impaired access to their premises with their harnessed guide dog.
Public transport must allow both dog and handler in. State and federal administrations must work out a cohesive plan to allow the visually impaired access to harnessed guide dogs, and for those dogs to be allowed entry into buildings and trains where special enclosed seats can be provided.
The reasons why guide dogs are so important to the visually impaired are as follows:
1. They instil confidence and mobility in the visually impaired to move around freely and without barriers to their rights to access all public venues and all means of public transport;
2. The guide dogs are highly trained to help the visually impaired move around obstacles safely when they are in unfamiliar territory; and
3. Guide dogs have also been proven to bring about psychological and social benefits for the visually impaired person by providing companionship and making interacting and socialising with sighted people easier.
In this day and age, it is imagineable that people with a disability continue to face discrimination in our community due to lack of awareness and tolerance among the general population.
We must change this and show that we do care about the underprivileged people in our pursuit to become a developed nation. As Keller was once quoted as saying: “The highest result of education is tolerance.”
TAN SRI LEE LAM THYE
Patron SPCA Selangor