In June 2018, I was asked by the charity Guide Dogs for the Blind to come in for an informal visit to meet some of the dogs who were in the later stages of their training, as it had been around 2 ½ years since I had been on the waiting list to be matched up with my own Guide Dog. Following this day, I was contacted again by the charity, where they were going to bring one of the dogs I spent time with to my home and had the opportunity to walk with him. I spent a further afternoon with the same dog which I had met previously and later received the news that the Guide Dog Mobility Trainer felt we worked well together. She then asked me how I would feel about him being my Guide Dog. I was so ecstatic beyond words and was so fascinated and amazed how this wonderful dog got me around in my local area in just one afternoon.
I started my training late August 2018 which was around 3 ½ weeks long, learning commands, learning frequent routes I would make, how to groom and feed him, how to take him to the park for a free run and learn about his monthly and quarterly medication. There was a lot to take in along with the intense training. I posted regular videos on my Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/visualeyeswithbhavini/ to raise awareness and inform others of my new addition to the family. I also shared that it is very important not to distract a working Guide Dog.
My Guide dog has certainly given me so much confidence, being able to just get out of my house and go on my terms and not having to rely on others’ timings. The independence has been a huge factor allowing me to travel to my office in Central London without the need of a sighted person, along with other basic tasks that people may take for granted.
However, my confidence was compromised when I chose to travel to work by minicab one day as I had a number of bags to take with me, the taxi driver and company refused my Guide Dog. The driver insisted he was allergic to dogs, but had no medical exemption card, which means it is illegal to refuse an assistance dog in a mini cab if the driver does not present this certificate. In addition, I was discouraged from attending an event where my whole family were going to be as my Guide Dog was said to have been not allowed in religious ceremonies, but later found that it was in fact due to someone being scared of dogs, which meant I had to miss out on the event.
Within 9 months of me having my Guide Dog, Sakonis on Ealing Road spoilt a family meal as they humiliated me in front of customers asking me to leave as I had a Guide Dog with me. The Hare Krishna Temple in Watford refused to speak with my husband to discuss the option of my Guide Dog being present during the day, as by email they stated he would be allowed in, but on the day, they refused. Further minicab drivers and my local Dentist are some additional examples.
All the access refusals I have encountered have been by fellow Asians. I think the fear of being around a dog overpowers their rational thinking that Guide Dogs are trained dogs & without my Guide Dog, I wouldn’t be able to get around. These dogs are completely different from general dogs and if people bothered to ask me questions or read up about Guide Dogs, then they would be aware and understand, but ignorance is easier then to engage and learn something different!
It was a huge decision I took to have a Guide Dog as I had witnessed the bond, the independence, the love and confidence it brings to someone with a Vision impairment, as quite a few of my friends and colleagues were guide dog owners. I had thought about it for around 5 years, thinking about my family dynamics and eventually it was a joint family agreement that I would certainly benefit from, especially after gaining employment which included travelling across the Capital.
Guide Dogs are highly trained working dogs who are calm, patient, loving and so friendly. If people got to know more about these dogs or actually researched how they are trained they would understand that these dogs are harmless. If you give them no attention, then they probably won’t even come to you. My Guide Dog has been called Satan by a Muslim Mini Cab driver because I have a black coloured Guide Dog. Guide Dogs come in all shapes, sizes and colour. One colour over another doesn’t mean anything different except the harness they wear means the owner has a different disability or the person may have multiple conditions.
When dining out, my Guide dog will either lay under the table or by my side. At events or meetings, It is helpful when I have an aisle seat or at the front of rows of seat so my Guide Dog has room to sit or lay down calmly. He has been matched to my personality, family structure and lifestyle so he is used to going out to busy environments.
Guide Dogs are on a special diet so you should never feed a dog and should be careful not to drop food around a Guide Dog, as this can have a detrimental effect on their work and health and is equally important not to distract a working Guide Dog. You should always ask permission to interact with them but never when they are working. You can see when they are working because they have their harness on. This can be distracting for both the dog and its owner which could lead to lack of concentration thus leading to mishaps or accidents.
Only the owner should command the Guide Dog and even though it maybe tempting, you should refrain from commanding the dog, for instance you should not tell it to sit down or instruct it in anyway unless the owner has given you permission.
A working Guide Dog is allowed in all public places unless for example a mini cab driver may genuinely have an allergy but this must be proven by presenting a medical certificate stating this. I have learned that people who may have a fear around dogs use this reason as an excuse, but cannot prove it.
I, myself understand fear, as I too was scared of dogs. I never had a bad experience with them, but I guess it was to do with not being able to see them and that not knowing if or when they would attack. A friend of mine allowed me to spend time with his Guide Dog, over time and I soon became comfortable around him, being able to stroke and play with his Guide Dog, learning that Guide Dogs are the friendliest of dogs and helped me feel at ease.
On a positive note, I have had relatives openly inviting my Guide Dog to attend family events within their homes, and events taking place at hired venues. My Guide Dog has attended a few pre-wedding parties, Birthday parties, weddings, wedding receptions and even played Garba with me during Navratri last year. This allowed the community to see how my Guide Dog is but also means that these people have an open mind, are educated and know and abide by the law. It was a great honour having my Guide Dog sat beside me during a religious puja at my home recently. The Maharaj (priest) who conducted the Haven Puja said how lucky and privileged my dog was to have been able to be included into the rituals and ceremony.
My Guide Dog is part of my life, he is my eyes and he goes where I go unless it is not safe to do so. I hope the mentality and awareness of Guide Dogs and disability can be reached in a positive way by the Asian community as everyone deserves the right to live their life by accessing services, community programmes, family events, public amenities and attraction sites just like everyone else.
In an ideal world Asian restaurants, Temples, venues or other establishments run by Asians should learn the equality act and know that by refusing a working assistance dog is actually breaking the law.
My family and I booked a table at Dil Se Restaurant and advised at the time of booking that I had a Guide Dog. It was a welcoming and polite booking from both ends and upon arrival we were asked where we would like to sit, and whether we would like a bowl of water for my dog. I was asked permission whether they could stroke my dog. This is how it should be!
Being Asian and living with my sight loss has been challenging enough and trying to cope and manage with the constant deterioration has been emotionally and mentally draining. Choosing to become a Guide Dog owner was to enhance my life by empowering me to live on my terms, however this has been compromised frequently by other Asians. I hope by me talking about my experience has helped in some way that next time you come across a Guide Dog, do not make the person with the Guide Dog feel discriminated. If you feel uncomfortable, then politely let the owner know, and they will try to move the dog on the other side of them if it is possible. Otherwise, you can politely inform the Guide Dog owner that you feel uncomfortable and that you will be moving to a different seat. This is both understanding, acceptable and done in a polite manner.
For more information about Guide Dogs, please visit: www.guidedogs.org.uk