Working guide dogs have been around for decades in Britain, but misunderstanding of the support they give to blind and partially-sighted people still lurks.
This month, a very personal incident reminded me of this.
It was an ordinary afternoon at a shopping centre near my home in Kent. I was with my fiancée Janey and had my guide dog River by my side, dressed in his white harness.
Soon after we arrived, a security guard confronted us and said the centre had a no dog policy and asked that we leave immediately.
I tried to calmly explain that River was legally protected but he refused to speak to me, turned away and only engaged with Janey.
And when we convinced him to radio his manager, he stated that he was dealing with a ‘woman with a dog’.
It was like I didn’t even exist.
An angry crowd of shoppers gathered to defend us, but the security guard still wouldn’t budge and so we decided to walk away.
I can’t help but think about others with sight loss in these situations.
I’m so lucky to have a strong support network and I consider myself a confident, level-headed guy.
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But someone who isn’t as confident or facing discrimination on their own may well have not pushed back, gone home – or worse.
New research from Guide Dogs shows that 42 per cent of people with sight loss feel left out of every day moments with family or at work, and incidents like this do not help one bit.
I have always had a vision impairment, but I lost all my functional sight three years ago. I was quick to push myself into learning how to use a cane to get around, but it wasn’t for me. I found every journey physically and emotionally draining.
The stress of working myself up to leave the house, just to get to the cafe two minutes down the road, was overwhelming.
I’m someone who loves being out and about, but suddenly found myself counting my paces every minute, worrying about lining up my feet at the crossings and feeling like everyone was watching me.
What happened at the shopping centre momentarily threw me back to that fearful time – being made to feel invisible, excluded and othered is horrible.
You’ll often find that people with sight loss who still have some vision will try their hardest to hide their disability. I did it myself for years, and it was always awful for me when I realised that someone had figured it out.
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They’d notice my eyes and change how they interacted with me, out of uncertainty or embarrassment. It’s little wonder that 58 per cent of people with sight loss say they feel socially isolated, according to Guide Dogs’ research.
So much changed when I got River.
People said hello more and were friendly to me – it always helps to have a beautiful dog by your side.
I started standing up straight and noticed the birds singing, rather than the constant stream of step counting in my head.
We’re so confident together that people often ask us for directions, which makes me laugh, but I’m able to help them – it’s rare I don’t know exactly where I am.
So much has changed since I lost the last of my useful vision, but there’s been a real silver lining in that I no longer hide who I am.
While most people think River is brilliant and will wholeheartedly defend my right to have him, some just don’t understand our partnership and see him as a pet.
But not liking dogs and not wanting them in your shop or taxi is no excuse for illegal discrimination.
The law is there: guide dogs are legally protected under the UK Equality Act 2010. River can be by my side almost without exception; it’s better education that’s needed. With proper staff training, what happened to us at the shopping centre could have been avoided so easily.
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On a positive note, it can be very easy to help a vision impaired person feel safer and more included.
It’s OK to step in if you think someone is struggling or lost or dealing with a difficult situation – just say hello and ask. Nine times out of 10 they’ll be absolutely fine, but it’s nice to check.
People with sight loss spend their days just like everyone else: running errands, looking after their kids and commuting to and from work. They just need some extra support and understanding sometimes.
To find out more about supporting Guide Dogs, visit guidedogs.org.uk