More places open to guide dogs

Financial services manager Dennis Sim with his guide dog Melba at The Star Vista, a guide dog-friendly mall. There has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of such places despite there being only seven guide dog users in Singapore.
Financial services manager Dennis Sim with his guide dog Melba at The Star Vista, a guide dog-friendly mall. There has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of such places despite there being only seven guide dog users in Singapore. Guide dogs, similar to other mobility aids, provide better mobility to people with visual disabilities. PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Some operators approach guide dog group on their own amid drive to build more inclusive society

The number of guide dog-friendly establishments here has risen to more than 70, an increase of about 50 per cent compared with three years ago.

This is despite there being only seven guide dog users in Singapore.

The Guide Dogs Association of the Blind (GDAB) said the rise was due, in part, to its efforts to bring the establishments on board. Companies have also chosen to come on board on their own.

Ms Vanessa Loh, general manager of the association, said: "We are very encouraged by the figures. We have establishments e-mailing us to find out how they can become guide dog-friendly."

A PROMISING SIGN

We are very encouraged by the figures. We have establishments e-mailing us to find out how they can become guide dog-friendly.

MS VANESSA LOH, general manager of the Guide Dogs Association of the Blind

The rise comes amid Singapore's bid to provide more access to people with disabilities.

The Government's measures include the Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016 to improve care services and expand the range of care options for people with disabilities.

On its part, the GDAB has approached retailers to get them on board, said its community partnership executive, Mr Alvin Ching.

Such efforts include visits to share information on people with visual disabilities and how to help them.

Among the places that accept guide dogs are public hospitals, hotels, supermarkets, shopping centres and retail stores.

A spokesman for supermarket chain FairPrice said outlets became guide dog-friendly three years ago and have put up signs displaying their stance. "Our staff are also aware that certified guide dogs are welcome at FairPrice and they are trained to respond to customers' queries regarding these working animals," she said.

Awareness has risen and FairPrice has not had any feedback on guide dogs in the past year, she said.

Mr Benny Se Teo, founder of halal restaurant chain Eighteen Chefs, has also put up signs to say the restaurant chain is guide dog-friendly.

He obtained permission from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) before putting them up.

"My managers are trained to usher guide dog users to an allocated space, where they can eat like any other customer," he said.

He decided to take the initiative to become inclusive and to ensure that customers are not turned away.

Guide dogs, similar to other mobility aids, provide better mobility to people with visual disabilities.

Despite the demand for the animals, only one or two are imported yearly by the GDAB, which funds the entire cost, Mr Ching said.

It costs $35,000 to import an animal that is trained in a guide dog facility in Australia to Singapore for advanced training. The cost includes procuring, freight and other expenses.

One beneficiary is Mr Dennis Sim, 50, a financial services manager, who got his guide dog, Melba, in March 2014. He has noticed that more organisations are now guide dog-friendly.

Mr Sim, who lost his vision completely about five years ago through an illness, said there are still some hurdles in accessing some buildings, especially at first try, or if staff in the building have changed and do not know the policies.

Dr Francis Seow Choen, former GDAB chairman and now on its board of directors, said the higher acceptance is a step forward, given that previously, many establishments were not keen to allow guide dogs inside.

"We had to do a lot of ground work and explain that guide dogs are not pets," he said.

In fact, these dogs are trained to focus on their work, and defecate or urinate only on command. They also do not bite or bark.

In the next three years, the GDAB aims to expand its services to more Singaporeans with visual disabilities, who number an estimated 28,000. For more information on the GDAB, visit guidedogs.org.sg.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2016, with the headline 'More places open to guide dogs'. Print Edition | Subscribe