On this year’s International Guide Dog Day, we spoke to two guide dog users to find out about the challenges they face, and how life has changed with their furry friends.
You might have spotted national para athlete Sophie Soon out and about in Singapore, accompanied by her trusty companion and guide dog Orinda. The two make an eye-catching pair as Sophie heads to the central business district for work, swim training sessions at the National Stadium and hits town to meet friends on the weekends.
Despite leading an active and independent lifestyle, Sophie still worries about accessibility and being turned away from extremely crowded places.
Sophie, 23, has cone rod dystrophy, a rare eye disorder that affects the retina and causes vision loss. She is a national swimmer for Team Singapore and employed as a marketing specialist at Toyota Motor Asia Pacific.
Diagnosed with the condition at a young age, she learnt how to navigate around with a cane and used an electronic magnifier to help her with reading in school. Her visual impairment has not stopped her from juggling both music and sports, and she dreams of becoming a Paralympian in the future.
After graduating from polytechnic in 2018, her vision deteriorated dramatically. She began to walk into things in her path, even young children. She had to adjust to being a “part-time” cane user to being reliant on a cane full-time, which she found slow and tedious.
“It was very frustrating knowing yes there’s a dustbin there, but how do I get around it?” she said. “I remember feeling very mentally exhausted, spending all my energy and time trying to move around. And with the sun, things are very blurry and I’d get even more headaches,” she said.
That was when she decided to apply for a guide dog with Guide Dogs Singapore (GDS), a process that would take her over a year to be matched. Meeting Orinda for the first time in Jan 2020, Sophie was struck by the close bond between dog and trainer.
It didn’t take long before Sophie and Orinda warmed up to each other. Today, the two of them operate in perfect sync, with Orinda being her eyes on the ground to navigate public spaces and cheering her up when she feels down.
In fact, they share similar personality traits too.
“When I’m training, I don’t talk to anybody else. But out of the pool, outside of the office, my friends know me as a cheerful and active person,” says Sophie. “In the same way, when Orinda is at work, she’s extremely focused. But when I take her off her harness she goes wild, shoving toys into my face, she’s full of energy!”
Everyone at the office fawns over Orinda too, jokes Sophie. She says her employers have also been extremely supportive of her sporting ambitions, giving her the option of a flexible work schedule so she can train for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
Life with a guide dog isn’t without its challenges, though. Sophie recalls standing in the middle of the field in a huge downpour, trying to urge Orinda to relieve herself because the dog was too shy to toilet in front of her.
While other guide dog users might stick to travelling around the same fixed route, Sophie’s varied schedule would mean that Orinda could meet many new people – some who might not know what guide dogs are.
Interestingly, she points out that the places in the East and Sentosa are extremely dog friendly, while she encounters the most “friction” in crowded spots like Orchard.
Once, after a gruelling training session, she was turned away from a Subway outlet at Kallang Wave Mall, as the counter staff had mistakenly thought that guide dogs were not allowed into halal establishments. She took to Facebook to air her frustration and the chain later apologised.
Another time, after Sophie and Orinda boarded a bus, a man began yelling and creating a scene about how dogs were not allowed on public transport. Thankfully, some members of the public and the bus captain went the extra mile to diffuse the tension and made sure she was okay.
Despite the negative attention, Sophie takes these incidents in her stride, seeing it as a form of education for the public and to advocate for disability rights.
She cites a heartwarming photo of Orinda sleeping at Sophie’s feet on the MRT which was widely shared on social media and drew adoring comments from the public. “I was heartened by how positive the comments were, how people said it made their day,” she said.
More than that, Sophie believes that such incidents like this create greater awareness of guide dogs in Singapore.
“For many new guide dog users, a lot of them worry about accessibility. Even now, this is still something I worry about. But the good thing is that in a small country like Singapore, word spreads very quickly and things can be changed quite rapidly if you constantly advocate for disability rights.”
“By speaking out, I can pave the way for new guide dog users to build a more positive society and I’m willing to take that step.”
A more inclusive landscape
Singapore has seen an increase in support and acceptance of guide dogs from the public over the last few years, said Guide Dogs Singapore (GDS).
More establishments recognise that guide dogs are permitted to enter and differentiate them from pet dogs. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) has also issued an advisory to all Halal-certified restaurants that permit the use of guide dogs in these places. They also encourage their followers to help guide dog users when in need, said GDS.
Currently, Singapore has seven guide dog teams to date, including a retired pair. Last year, the organisation welcomed back Christina, Singapore’s first and only local certified guide dog mobility instructor who underwent training in Melbourne for two years.
To be eligible for a guide dog, clients need to have strong navigation skills, conducive home environments, along with independent daily living skills which will help them groom and care for the guide dog, said GDS. Clients also have to commit to a seven to nine years of partnership with the dog.
Currently, GDS has six clients on its waiting list.
“There definitely has been an increase since our inception but many of our visually impaired clients are still concerned about the accessibility of guide dogs in Singapore,” said Vanessa Loh, general manager of GDS.
Despite laws that permit the use of guide dogs in F&B outlets and public transport, she notes that guide dog teams still face challenges in Singapore due to individuals who are unaware or are biased towards service dogs.
With F&B establishments, the management is often aware but not the ground staff, and hence GDS encourages the management to display signages to keep the staff informed.
“The biggest challenge today is the high rejection rate from private hire drivers. Our clients face a 50 percent rejection rate on a regular basis which is very distressing and disruptive to their schedule. We hope the drivers can be more accepting of our guide dog teams in their vehicles,” she said.
A companion for life
Pioneering guide dog user Alvin Ng knows all too well how frustrating it can be, just to get around public spaces. In one incident, his ride was cancelled seven times in a row when he tried to book a private-hire car.
“It can get very stressful. Imagine every time, I have to make at least a 20 minute allowance just to make sure I can get the car, before I even think about traveling,” said Alvin, 54.
For the past 10 years, he has traveled around Singapore with the help of his faithful guide dog Seretta.
When he was 31 years old, Alvin lost his eyesight suddenly due to complications when he lapsed into a coma after contracting a rare auto-immune disease. He had just completed his thesis for his Masters in Business when he fell ill with a month-long low-grade fever.
Living in a world of darkness, Alvin was devastated by the loss of his eyesight and his future dreams. For almost 10 years, he was unable to travel on his own and had to rely on his family members and friends to bring him out to participate in activities. That loss of independence also caused him to slip into depression.
In 2006, Alvin had a chance encounter with Singapore’s very first guide dog and its handler. He had been in the library of the Singapore Association Of The Visually Handicapped when he met the pair. He overcame his initial fear and squatted down to pet the dog.
“For the sighted, it’s love at first sight. But for me, it’s love at the first touch. I couldn’t get it out of my mind and the next day, I called up the handler to request for him to help me get a guide dog,” he said.
It took six years before that dream was fulfilled. Along the way, Alvin had to train his orientation and mobility skills to prepare himself for the partnership. In November 2012, he boarded a plane to Melbourne, Australia and met Seretta, then an 18-month old Labrador-Golden retriever cross.
Reflecting on his journey, Alvin says it wasn’t easy. “For people who think having a guide dog is a panacea to solve your problems, or a walk in the park, it’s not. You have to work hard for it and you can enjoy the fruits later on,” says Alvin.
Since then, Seretta has become a loyal life companion. The pair find comfort in each other, and Alvin says he has gained a newfound sense of peace and patience.
She has also helped Alvin emerge from his introverted shell. He enjoys striking up conversations with curious members of the public, as he sees it as a chance to educate them on guide dogs. A new hurdle awaits Alvin. Today, Seretta is nearing 10, the universally observed age of retirement for guide dogs. When the day comes, Alvin has to get a new guide dog, though the prospect of having to work with a new guide dog is daunting.
While he is sad that this partnership will come to an end, he intends to keep Seretta as a pet. “Having Seretta come into my life is the best thing that happened to me. She made me a more confident person, a more outward looking person.”
“She’s a part of me and without her, I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today.”