With the recent discussion on whether dogs should be allowed on public transport, I was reminded of an article I wrote for HOPE awhile back, that hasn’t been published (I’m not sure whether it will ever be published, but if it does I will just delete this post). Basically I was tasked to write an article based on a storyline already given, regarding the attitude of Singaporeans to dogs and therapy/service dogs in Singapore. So without further ado, here it is:
Special Needs Kids and Animals
Dogs have been living alongside us for the past 32,000 years, as our loyal, constant companion, our confidante, and most commonly, “Man’s best friend”. They have been tasked to help us in whatever we are unable to do, from herding cattle to sniffing out drugs and bombs at airports and custom check points.
Yet, despite the many health and social benefits that dogs have been proven to bring, such as helping one with depression, lowering blood pressure, improving self-esteem and even lowering the chances of an infant having eczema, Singapore has yet to fully embrace the culture of dogs living amongst us and this is of course worse for service dogs, which for many countries include Guide Dogs for the Blind, Hearing Dogs for the Deaf, Seizure Response dogs, Autism Service dogs, Service Dogs for Wounded Veterans, and many more.
A service dog is one that is trained to work or perform tasks for people with physical disabilities or mental disabilities, such as pulling a wheelchair or picking keys off the ground for a wheel-chair bound person, or calming an individual with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack. Guide dogs have been proven to extend a disabled’s mobility, independence, self-esteem and by extension, contribution to society.
In spite of all these many contributions that a guide dog can bring, there are only four guide dogs for the blind (as of Nov 2013), and one autism service dog in Singapore. The owners of these guide dogs faced many difficulties in getting their service dogs into Singapore and past the authorities and bureaucratic red-tape, but face even more difficulties in Singapore with subsequent day-to-day activities with their guide dogs due to the discrimination they face by shops, eateries and getting onto transport.
Guide dogs are only allowed into eateries, if the eateries “decide on allowing guide dogs on premises”. This is akin to telling a fellow visually impaired individual that he is not to use his white cane, or asking a hearing impaired person not to wear his hearing aid, unless they are allowed to. This is because guide dogs for the blind are highly trained and entirely remove the need for a visually impaired person to use the cane, improving their independence and mobility, hence allowing their dog entry to a public place should not be a privilege, but a fundamental basic human right.
Mr Kua Cheng Hock, founder of Guide Dogs Association of the Blind, was the first person in Singapore who managed to obtain his guide dog, Kendra, in 2005 after much persistence. In 1982, Mr Kua did try to bring a guide dog in from Australia; however requisite infrastructural support and laws were nearly non-existent then, and he had to return the dog.
Ms Cassandra Chiu, and her guide dog Esme, the second guide dog in Singapore, have been refused entry into eateries such as McDonalds and fashion shops, at least once a day. Both continually face extreme difficulty getting a cab as many cab drivers are afraid that the dog will dirty their car.
In a much more disabled-friendly and equality-driven UK, it is now illegal for drivers of private hire vehicles (or minicabs) to refuse to carry guide dog owners just because they are accompanied by their dogs.
It has been nearly 10 years since Mr Kua got Kendra, however there has not been much improvement in the acceptance of guide dogs in Singapore and their accessibility to places. There are a total number of 3,301 registered members for the Singapore Association of the Visually Impaired, yet there are only four guide dogs for the blind in Singapore. A guide dog significantly improves the standard of living for a visually impaired person, improving their independence, and is much easier to handle than a cane, so why haven’t they been given more leeway in assisting our fellow Singaporeans?
Many parents can attest to the fact their greatest fear would be losing their child in a crowded or public place. This is an even greater issue for parents of special needs children, as these children often have no concept of stranger-danger and often run towards whatever catches their interest, whether an aggressive dog separated by a mere metal gate, or a basketball court across a busy street. They have been coined by their parents as “Houdini”, as they are able to escape from even the toughest child-locks.
Recently, at our adoption drive at Star Vista, we were fortunate to meet Mrs Jane McMillan, her son, Miles and his autism service dog (the first in Singapore), Bobby, a 3 year old black Labrador retriever rescued from the pound in Ireland where he was meant to be put to sleep. 12-year old Miles is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Depending on the severity, children diagnosed with ASD show significant difficulty in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and often display repetitive behaviours, such as clapping or shouting. Making and maintaining friendships often proves to be difficult for those with autism, and most suffer from more intense and frequent feeling of loneliness. Some children even exhibit serious behavioural changes including, at times, self-injury.
Jane explained that she faces the same issues that Mr Kua had told us, and that her intention of bringing service-dog certified Bobby to the adoption drive was to raise awareness of the need for service dogs, especially for children with special needs. Before Bobby came, Jane used to spend hours searching for Miles in shopping centres, however now, due his love and close bond with Bobby, he stays close to Bobby and does not wander off, relieving Jane’s anxiety of losing Miles.
Not only can service dogs help in the way that Bobby has helped Jane and Miles, it has been proven that with the help of a service dog, students with ASD, Down Syndrome, Asperger’s and other disabilities have better concentration and may thus be able to increase their abilities and do better in the classroom.
With The Guide Dogs Association of the Blind raising funds to help interested and suitable blind Singapore acquire guide dogs, there is an even greater and urgent need for Singaporeans and relevant corporations to be more open-minded and sensitive towards the need for guide dogs. Hence, let us all work towards being a more inclusive and compassionate society – supportive and sensitive to the needs of the disabled.
With much progress and acceptance of the need for service dogs, maybe one day, we too will get our wish to bring our furry companions to more places, like in the Netherlands where dogs are allowed into cafes, restaurants and shopping malls, or in UK where dogs are allowed in trains, off peak period. Kudos to all the five service dogs in Singapore and their owners, and for Mr Kua, Ms Cassandra Chiu and Mrs Jane McMillan for standing firm to what they believe in and leading Singapore towards being a more tolerant and open-minded society.
Note: In 2007, The Islamic Sharia Council (UK) lifted any ban on guide dogs used by the disabled. It ruled that guide dogs can accompany disabled people into restaurants or taxis managed or driven by Muslims. The council also decided that disabled Muslims can use guide dogs because such highly trained animals are essential to the independence of a disabled person