AFTER reading the letter from David C. E. Tneh, “Let trained dogs guide the blind freely” (The Star, Oct 3), I am compelled to revisit the subject of trained guide dogs leading the blind.
Tneh pointed out that in Malaysia, visually impaired individuals with trained guide dogs are not allowed in a majority of malls and are also forbidden in public transport hubs, KTM Komuter, LRT and MRT, making it difficult for the visually impaired to go about freely.
In her essay “Three Days to See” written in 1933, Helen Keller, a renowned American author who was hearing and vision impaired, 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.”
She was also famously quoted saying “What a blind person needs is not a teacher but another self.”
In many cases, we should let the guide dogs be “another self” for the visually impaired.
Malaysia’s commitment towards 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 thereafter culminated in 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 is such an important “tool” for the visually impaired.
Although uncommon in Malaysia, guide dogs are legal assistants in many countries. Like “eyes” for the blind, a guide dog helps visually impaired people navigate through obstacles.
Guide dogs come with a variety of benefits and help in many ways. They 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.
A few years ago, Stevens Chan Kum Fai (pic), 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 visually impaired persons to be mobile.
Chan hoped that his walkabout with his guide dog would motivate the government to review the Persons with Disability Act 2008 to include access for 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 of and dialogue between various stakeholders, including governments, civil society organisations and the scientific and academic communities, to promote awareness on the plight of the visually impaired in Malaysia, especially when it comes to access of the visually impaired to guide dogs.
While we do accept 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 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, which in effect meant that a visually impaired Muslim was able to have 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 mobile and are able to manoeuvre our streets with ease.
Shopping malls, eateries, business and residential properties must be open to the idea of allowing the visually impaired access to their premises accompanied by 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 the dogs to be allowed entry into buildings and trains where special enclosed seats can be provided. It is hoped that the new government will consider this proposal.
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 free and without barriers to their rights to access all public venues and all means of public transportation;
2. Guide dogs are highly trained to help the visually impaired move around obstacles safely when a visually impaired person is in unfamiliar territory; and
3. Guide dogs have also been proven to bring about psychological and social benefits, providing companionship, making interacting and socializing with sighted people easier for the visually impaired person.
In this day and age, it is unconscionable that people with a disability continue to face discrimination in our community due to lack of awareness and tolerance among us.
We must change and show that we do care about the underprivileged people in our pursuit to become a developed nation. “The highest result of education is tolerance,” Keller said.
TAN SRI LEE LAM THYE