Making life easier and more accessible

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 February, 2011, 12:00am

Living in a dark, blurry and colourless world, the visually impaired in Hong Kong rely on a cane to move around. And they face many obstacles in their daily lives. Overhanging scaffolding, for example, poses a huge threat. This is because, using canes, the visually impaired are only aware of a 45-degree area in front of them as they walk.

Yet guide dog Google's arrival last month could signal a brighter future for them.

The five-month-old Labrador from Taiwan will be the first of many guide dogs supporting people with impaired vision in Hong Kong.

The puppy is the territory's first guide dog since 1975. That year, two guide dogs were imported from Australia; one died of illness, and the other was killed in a car accident.

The newly formed Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association (HKGDA) will lead the way in training the dogs and raising funds to support the service.

Training one guide dog and its owner during its lifetime will cost HK$200,000.

Google will spend 18 months with a foster family in Hong Kong. He will learn to live in a home, undergo formal training and, ultimately, team up with a sight-impaired partner for life.

Now that this option is available for the blind, is Hong Kong ready to accept it?

In countries like Japan, Britain and the United States, guide dogs are a common sight. Users can take their dogs almost anywhere thanks to well-established laws.

In a Legislative Council meeting earlier this month, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, Secretary for Labour and Welfare, declared that the rights of the visually impaired and their dog companion are protected by law.

'If a person refuses to allow a visually impaired person accompanied by a guide dog to enter any premises that the public is allowed to enter, or refuses to provide that person with services or facilities, it may be construed as a contravention of the Disability Discrimination Ordinance,' Cheung said.

The ordinance covers hotel, banking, education, entertainment, recreation, transport and other services.

Cheung also pointed out that although dogs are not allowed into restaurants, guide dogs serving a blind person are.

According to the Hong Kong Housing Authority, visually impaired people living in public housing estates can keep guide dogs.

'Under existing laws, a guide dog accompanied by a visually impaired person can get on public buses, the MTR and the Peak Tram,' said Civic Party lawmaker Audrey Eu Yuet-mee.

'For other transport [services] such as minibuses and taxis, there is no such exemption for guide dogs. It is at the operators' discretion whether or not to allow the working animals on board.'

Most exemptions for guide dogs come with the condition that the animal must be accompanied by a blind or sight-impaired person.

The problem is: how can Google the puppy get trained by people with normal eyesight?

Raymond Cheung Wai-man is the territory's first and only qualified guide dog mobility instructor. Cheung learned how to coach guide dogs and their handlers in Australia and New Zealand.

'Overseas guide dogs are schooled in a realistic setting, and so Google will be,' he said. 'Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories will all be his classroom.'

But Cheung has had a tough time arranging 'lessons' for his guide dog.

Last month, he visited a Wellcome supermarket in Kowloon Tong with Google, but they were barred from entering the store because of health and safety concerns.

Their trip to City University ended in failure, too.

'The five-month-old Google has to broaden his horizons and get used to everyday life,' Cheung said. 'If Google has never been to a local supermarket, how can the dog take his owner there?'

Guide dogs are still a new concept to the territory. While laws can help change public opinion, it is education that really matters.

HKGDA vice-president Tsang Kin-ping said: 'In reality, whether you can take guide dogs to certain places or not depends on whether the staff are well informed of such laws.

'It is also important to educate the public [about the introduction of the guide dog service]. Or else, they may be startled if there is a dog on the bus.'

The HKGDA has approached public transport companies, supermarkets and other premises in its bid to gain approval for Google and his trainer to use their services and facilities.

Acting as education ambassadors for the HKGDA, the pair will visit schools and other venues.

Last week, they were at the Northern Lamma School on Lamma Island and the sixth Hong Kong Pet Show at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The HKGDA is recruiting members and raising funds to send four people with impaired vision to the United States to choose a dog and receive training.