International Guide Dog Day was observed around the world on Wednesday. SABC Journalist Justin Kennerley took the challenge of trying to get around the streets of Johannesburg while blindfolded, simulating what a visually impaired person might experience, along with the help of the guide dog named Bonnie.
The South African Guide Dog Association (SAGDA) defines a guide dog as such: “Guide Dogs helps the owner to avoid obstacles; prevent accidents in traffic, to locate destinations and to be a constant companion enhancing life and providing independence, mobility and companionship.”
Walking through the streets of Johannesburg without sight for the first time was, “terrifying,” the radio journalist confesses, though made significantly better with Bonnie alongside to protect him.
Alongside Kennerley was long time guide dog trainer Mandla Nxumalo of SAGDA. He helped facilitate the activity by teaching Kennerley important commands and knowledge of how to work with a guide dog.
Nxumalo, Head of Training, has worked as a guide dog trainer for 16 years and an advocate of their use.
“A guide dog gives you independence”- Nxumalo
Not only does having a guide dog allow visually impaired people increased independence, it also offers you a friend, states Nxumalo.
These canines also offer a type of mobility not possible with the use of canes or a guiding friend or family member.
“If you have a guide dog you don’t have to wait for someone to come home and guide you” said Nxumalo.
And canes can come with limitations when one tries to walk through the bustling streets and traffic of a busy city like Johannesburg.
Dean Webb is legally blind and does not use a guide dog. Instead, he uses a cane for his primary way for getting around, even with its limitations. His family supports him when those limitations get in the way.
“I’m quite independent with my cane [and] I don’t need to get around the town or city by myself.”
But for those with visual impairments that would like to get into the city more and with increased independence, a guide dog offers that possibility.
Currently, SAGDA reports that there are only 400 guide dogs in South Africa, this despite the South African National Council for the Blind (SANCB) reporting sight disabilities in South Africa as the most prevalent of all disabilities.
The number of barriers keeping South Africans from acquiring a guide dog may be keeping this number low.
“Owning a guide dog means having support from your family.”– Nxumalo
Financial barriers are often a primary deterrent. Besides the cost of purchasing a dog, the costs associated with caring for them abound—money for dog food, proper accommodation, veterinary visits and so forth.
SANCB estimates that “97% of all blind and partially sighted people in South Africa are unemployed.” This indicates that many visually impaired people financially depend on others like family members.
Then there are also the cultural barriers associated with dogs. Nxumalo describes that for many South Africans, dogs are viewed as dirty and sometimes not allowed in the home.
This becomes an issue because all these dogs were trained and raised to be indoor dogs and cannot be relegated to living outside all day, the trainer explained.
Furthermore, a guide dog might mean not using public transportation often.
Stories of visually impaired people not allowed on public transportation because of their guide dog are not uncommon according to Webb,“Because you might be waiting at the Bus Stop and 3 or 4 taxis might pass you by without stopping.”
All of these barriers can culminate, making it difficult for South Africans with visual impairments to access guide dogs.