Preparing for new leash on life
When glaucoma robbed Fu Tai-fun of her sight six years ago it took away her mobility, as she no longer dared to go to unfamiliar places because she was afraid of getting lost.
But Fu hopes her world will grow bigger again after flying to New York last Saturday for training with a guide dog. She and another blind Hongkonger will return later this month with the first two fully trained guide dogs Hong Kong has had in 36 years.
'I will be able to walk faster and go places without volunteers' help, with the guide dog,' Fu, who works in telesales, said before her trip.
Fu and the other trainee - Tsang Kin-ping, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association - are being trained under a pilot project organised by the Ebenezer School and Home for the Visually Impaired and Hong Kong Society for the Blind.
The HK$719,000 project, funded by the S.K. Yee Medical Fund for the Disabled, will eventually benefit four visually impaired people. The other two people will go to the United States by the end of the year.
Fu was excited as she spoke of her preparations for the trip. 'I am buying a bed and a bigger water dispenser for the new member [of my household],' she said. 'I also need to counsel my current dog, so it won't get jealous.'
An amateur marathon runner, Fu is looking forward to a scenario in which her guide dog waits for her at the finishing line while she competes in local and overseas races.
For the first two weeks after the dogs arrive, they will be trained in adapting to the local environment. Australian guide dog trainer Ian Cox will come to Hong Kong to help, and he will visit the dogs and their new owners every three months to monitor their progress until the end of next year.
The project follows a three-year feasibility study on using guide dogs in Hong Kong. The city was judged too crowded and noisy for guide dogs by one expert report, written after the city's last guide dog died in 1976.
But Simon Yu Kwok-hung of the Society for the Blind said he believed the dogs were well enough trained to adapt to such a distracting environment. 'There are guide dogs in Japan and Taiwan too, and those two places are no less crowded than Hong Kong,' he said.
The school and the organisation hope the government will make a better effort to educate the public about guide dogs.
'There isn't enough back-up from the government,' said Liza Wong Man, a volunteer in the guide dog pilot project at Ebenezer School. 'Apart from letting the public know how to behave when they see a guide dog, the visually impaired should be told that they have a choice,' she said. 'They do not always need to depend on a cane.'
When a guide dog is working, people should not touch it, give orders or feed it without the user's consent, the society says. If a guide dog and its user are having difficulty in a public place, people should ask how they can help.
The organisation and school were hoping to buy guide dogs and train them in Hong Kong when they applied for the fund, but an ownership row over two guide dogs in training in Hong Kong - Google and Iris - forced them to change their plan. The money will now be spent on paying Fu and Tsang's air fares and on public education. They still hope Hong Kong can breed and train its own guide dogs in future.
The row broke out before last Christmas, when the only accredited guide dog instructor in Hong Kong, Raymond Cheung Wai-man, left the Guide Dog Association and claimed ownership of both dogs, which were gifts from the Taiwan Guide Dog Association. He is training Google and Iris and said they would later be given to blind people who needed them.