Emphasis in education for people with impaired vision has largely concentrated on communication skills, teaching reading and writing through aids such as braille and augmented computer accessibility. Very little emphasis is placed on mobility which is key to living a life integrated into society.
By Chris Buchanan
Jenny lives her life as a companion for the visually impaired. She has grown up among the visually impaired and understands the hazards that confront those with limited sight every day. Her day is one of giving mobility to those who, despite the fact are able to read, write and communicate, cannot get around.
She never complains about her work and provides her essential service with enthusiasm and a broad smile on her face, confident that her visually impaired companion lives a more complete life with her there to assist them. Jenny is a guide dog with the SA Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind.
I met Jenny on a warm Winter’s afternoon at the Association’s offices in Paulshof in Johannesburg where she, and her handler, Permit Nncube, Senior Guide Dog Mobility Instructor, were about to take me on a frightening and disorientating journey into a world of darkness.
Basic mobility and orientation
Earlier in the day I had a taste of what it’s like to do simple tasks like identify the difference between a R10 and a R200 note while blindfolded. Any mistake in paying for transport or for goods and services, can cost you R190! Although the notes are different in size, there is no identifiable feature to tell any difference between the two.
Queen Molefe, Orientation & Mobility Practitioner Supervisor, handed me a money template into which you slide the note, and feeling the corresponding edge on the end, tells you the size and, therefore, the value of the note. Without it, you rely on your sense of touch, and mine was nowhere near proficient enough.
So, how then would you combine the senses of touch and hearing to get from one point to another using a cane? Pieter van Niekerk, Head of Public Relations at the Association, walks as naturally with a cane as I do with 20:20 vision. The cane gives him enough sensory information for him to muti-task as he walks ahead of us down a narrow, winding pathway, through the grounds of the campus.
It was my turn to walk from one room to another, a chair as my starting point, through a door, down a passage to the second door on the left and back. Again, I was blindfolded with only the tip of the cane to give me the information I needed to make my journey. Queen Molefe gave me pointers but ensured I moved entirely out of my comfort zone as I gingerly found my way back to the starting point
Touch and sound are an incredible combination when you really need them and I made the short, few steps with alternative sensory overload, compensating for the 80% of the senses our sight provides. Put your trust in the cane and it will show you the way.
All about trust
And trust is the cornerstone of the relationship between an unsighted person and their guide dog. Jenny is trained to negotiate the simplest of obstacles in a methodical and consistent procedure. Get to a step and she stops. Your trust in her action, means security in your next move, up or down the step.
If Jenny nudges you to the right or left, she does it knowing that you will avoid an obstacle, which may be a bollard or a sinkhole. It’s not the extremity of the obstacle that concerns her, it’s the objective of seeing you through it safely and with confidence and trust. Without putting my trust in Jenny, I might as well have stayed at home.
What I thought was a short series of kerb crossings, stairs and winding obstacles, turned out to be 400 metres of fairly tricky obstacles that Jenny took me through with confidence and assurance. It was through the campus of the Association, along a quiet road and with Permit at our side. To do the same through the Cape Town, Johannesburg or Sandton CBD, is something I couldn’t contemplate without absolute trust in the guide dog at my side.
Pieter told us the dogs are bred and raised to adolescence at the Association, where they’re trained and fostered until they find a permanent companion. SA Guide-Dogs Association also provides assistance dogs for people with other disabilities other than sight impairment, as well as autism assistance dogs.
Humility and respect
I removed my blindfold and waited a few minutes while my eyes adjusted to the hard Winter’s light. I felt relief at being able to see again and evaluate the journey I had taken with Jenny. I was overwhelmed with humility for these animals and their handlers who prepare them for a life’s work at the side of their companion – their best friend.
It is for those who wake up every day, relying on their best friend, or a cane, for mobility, and who do so in darkness, unable to appreciate a beautiful sunrise, that my true admiration lies.
When next you encounter the SA Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind at your local shopping centre, put some money in their tin or donate some food for the dogs – it’s where a large chunk of their funds come from, and you’ll keep that smile on Jenny’s face and a wag in her tail.
Visit the SA Guide-Dogs website and make a donation.