As a blind guide dog user, I want social distancing to stay forever

Sassy Wyatt, a petite white woman with red hair, smiling in front of a tree. She is wearing a black dress and it is summer.
Disabled people are once again being forgotten about (Picture: Grace Elizabeth Photography)

It’s 10am and I’m walking down the street to catch my next train for work with my guide dog, Ida.

Despite it still being early, I’ve already been shoulder-barged twice, and a member of the public has stepped into my personal space to stroke Ida, irrespective of her wearing a harness that clearly displays the words: ‘Please do not distract me, I’m a working guide dog’.

It is daily incidents like these that make me wish social distancing rules were still in place.

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But for most visually-impaired people, social distancing made life more difficult. We can’t see the signs on the floor to show which way to go or where to stand in a queue.

As blindness is a spectrum, some of us don’t have depth perception and cannot judge the correct distance from the things or people around us — we usually need to get a lot closer to objects to be able to see them.

However, as a guide dog owner, I revelled in the lack of contact that the two metre rule brought with it. And controversial though it may be, I miss people sticking so rigidly to social distancing because it allows me to get on with my day and not be continuously interrupted by the public.

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As a blind woman – living with no vision since 2013 due to arthritis – I rely on my guide dog for leading the life I choose.

I’m a disability awareness consultant and content creator. The four and a half year partnership I’ve had with my guide dog has enabled me to run my own business and travel the world with confidence.

The busier the city I’m attending, the more focused she becomes — weaving and swerving me around the chaos, reducing brain fatigue and concentration on my part.

As well as the practical help she gives me, Ida is a joy to have around. Whether she’s ‘frog-dogging’ on the floor at a busy conference or beating people’s legs with her rambunctious tail, she makes an impact wherever she goes.

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Ida and I spent the first six months of the pandemic shielding due to me having no immune system.

The sheer volume of people who ignore the sign on Ida’s harness and insist on distracting her astounds me

When restrictions were relaxed, to say that we were both beyond excited to be out in the world again is an understatement. Going back outside for the first time, I felt worried about keeping us both safe from Covid. That, combined with my blindness, made it a very anxious time.

Thankfully the first few forays out were with my sighted husband so he was able to keep us safe and socially distant. When we eventually ventured alone, to my surprise, I found it extremely refreshing that Ida and I were having smooth and uninterrupted journeys – no one distracted her or bumped into us because they had to keep their distance.

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Now that social distancing is all but gone, the sheer volume of people who ignore the sign on Ida’s harness and insist on distracting her astounds me.

If I’m blind and I know what the signing on her harness says, you don’t have an excuse.

Just days after lockdown number three ended, I was in the reception at my hospital appointment – with my husband and Ida – waiting to get my blood pressure measured.

Ida lay calmly at my husband’s feet until a receptionist came from behind the counter and started talking to her.

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‘I bet you’ve been working hard today?’ she said, while walking towards Ida and giving her eye contact. This quickly got her tail wagging.

‘No, sorry she’s working,’ I was forced to say to her. I felt extremely uncomfortable and exasperated.

This was one of my first medical appointments I had attended in person since the pandemic began, and already this person was potentially putting me at risk.

Despite me saying this, the woman proceeded to sit down in the seat next to my husband, and reached out to stroke the now standing Ida.

Make a dog-walking station for the entryway if you have more than one dog. See how this is done here.

Sassy Wyatt, a petite white woman, smiling while leaning over her guide dog, Ida, who is a black labrador-retriever cross and wearing a guide dogs UK harness, in front of a bush.
If I’m blind and I know what the signing on her harness says, you don’t have an excuse
(Picture: Grace Elizabeth Photography)

‘My friend has a guide dog and lets me say hello even when it’s working,’ she said.

Allowing the public to distract our dogs on harness is why this ignorant pattern continues. And owners like me are left to rebuke our guide dogs, even though she was diligently doing her job just moments ago.

This is something I have unhappily become used to. No matter how polite I am in asking the public to not distract Ida, I have received verbal backlash from individuals upset about my boundaries, claiming that the pandemic is over and telling me that I don’t need to worry about social distancing.

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Pandemic or no pandemic, I should not have to clarify or justify my reasoning for telling you that my guide dog is working.

I genuinely believed that the awfulness of Covid and its consequences made people appreciate the complexity of living with a disability; visible or otherwise by accommodating people who were more vulnerable.

However, it feels that as society returns back to normality, disabled people are once again being forgotten about.

If a guide dog’s role is to be a visually impaired persons’ eyes, it would be safe to assume that interfering with those ‘eyes’ is dangerous to the person being guided.

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Trying to get my guide dog’s attention – whether she is sitting, standing or walking – is equal to a passenger in your car grabbing the steering wheel as you are driving.

While I love being able to hug family and sit next to my friends in a pub – and things like train station staff being able to guide me while I’m holding their elbow and following their body movements – are beneficial, the other risks that come with people getting too close, mean I would happily live with social distancing forevermore.

Use a Front Clip Harness to Prevent Pulling on Leash. If your dog pulls on his leash get a harness that clips in the front. The harnesses that clip on the back promote more pulling. And when you’re working on leash manners ditch the retractable leash for a regular 6 foot one so your dog can get the feeling of what loose leash walking means.

It’s my hope that people can learn from the pandemic and continue to give disabled people the space they need to exist and be autonomous, without distracting assistance dogs or encroaching upon our personal boundaries.

This must happen so that disabled people can feel confident and secure when travelling, out in public and going about our daily business.

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