Many people in China first learned about the use of guide dogs by watching the 2004 Japanese film Quill. But in contrast to the respect the dogs received on the screen, they remain heavily discriminated against on the Chinese mainland.
It has been six years since the first guide dogs were trained in China. However, the few blind people lucky enough to have won a guide dog have been routinely prohibited from using the dogs to navigate public spaces.
Vivian is a guide dog trained by Dalian Guide Dog Training Center. Today she assists a 53-year-old Beijinger named Qi Jinyou.
Last month, Qi and Vivian were invited to participate in the opening ceremony of the capital’s first movie theater for the blind. It was Vivian’s first time being allowed inside a public entertainment venue.
Qi lost his sight to glaucoma. Since he won the dog in mid-2010, Vivian has been his eyes.
“When she senses a threat, she leads me away or runs around me in circles and doesn’t allow anyone to touch me,” he said.
Qi injured himself several times before he received Vivian. In one of his worst accidents, he fell down a staircase and broke two ribs.
“Now, if there is a pitfall ahead, Vivian will stand in front of me and block me from going further,” Qi said.
But in spite of how important Vivian is to Qi’s mobility, he has been prohibited from taking her into supermarkets or onto public transportation – even after explaining that Vivian is a guide dog and not a pet.
“There have been times we were stuck waiting for more than an hour to find a taxi driver who was willing to stop for us,” Qi said.
“Since there are so few places that will let me enter with Vivian, we often have to stay home. It’s a shame, because her special ability is going to waste,” he said.
No Dogs Allowed
Qi is not the only blind person to encounter these problems.
Lin Yan, a blind woman from Shenyang, Shandong Province, learned just how often Beijingers are prevented from relying on their guide dogs when she came to the capital to record a TV program last month.
During her five days in the capital she was prevented from taking her guide dog Sherry on the city’s subways and buses, rejected by taxi drivers and barred from entering most restaurants.
Lin said that while some people in Shenyang have been intolerant of Sherry, she was unprepared for the discrimination she would encounter in the capital.
“When I tried to go around town with my guide dog, I ended up having to phone the police for help. No one was willing to take me home,” Lin said.
Even the police were powerless. She said one officer helped her hail 10 taxis, nine of which refused to take her when they found she was using a guide dog.
In the end, Lin spent the trip confined to her hotel room.
For the most part, public spaces in Japan, Australia and the US are familiar with guide dogs and their use. However, China has been slow to pass regulations that would guarantee the rights of blind people to use their guide dogs in public areas.
Pet regulations further complicate guide dog use.
Currently, Beijing residents are prohibited from owning large dogs if they live within Fifth Ring Road. However, the breeds used for guide dogs tend to be large dogs like Golden and Labrador retrievers. The same regulations prohibit owners from walking their dogs during the daytime.
The only law that comes close to addressing the issue of guide dogs is Article 58 of the Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons, which says that blind persons must observe the relevant provisions of the country when entering a public space.
“Of course, it does not elaborate on what these provisions are or how they are to be followed. In practice, blind people who depend on guide dogs end up asking for permission to use their dogs everywhere they go,” said You Fangqiu, press officer of Dalian Guide Dog Training Center.
As director of Xicheng District’s association for the blind, Qi has appealed to the government on multiple occasions to pass laws that would protect guide dog users.
“Without a guide dog, we have no freedom. But even with a guide dog, we have no freedom. It’s a waste of resources.”
Training a guide dog is not only complicated: it’s expensive.
You said it costs the center 120,000 yuan to train a guide dog, and that many of the dogs fail to graduate and become guides.
She said the puppies bred to become guide dogs at the center go through rigorous testing to determine if they have the proper temperament. Promising pups go through a year of hard training to become guide dog candidates. If they can survive a month of real use, the dog “graduates” and is passed on to a blind user.
The graduation rate is about 30 percent, she said.
In most countries, one in every hundred blind persons can get a guide dog. Given China has 16.9 million visually impaired people in the country and only 21 graduates of guide dog school, the rate of guide dog use is shockingly low.
Many of the problems begin at the funding level.
She said guide dog training used to be funded primarily by donations, but the budget was not stable enough to train enough dogs to meet the needs of blind applicants.
Since last year, the central government has been subsidizing the program by paying 50 percent of the cost for each dog that graduates.
“It’s greatly reduced our pressure,” You said. The center is now training a batch of 50 dogs.
But more important than the subsidy is the news that legislators are currently reviewing a new regulation on the construction of “barrier-free” facilities. In a recent draft made public by the State Council’s Legal Affairs Office, one article states that disabled people must be able to use all forms of public transport and public spaces while accompanied by their identified guide dogs.
If passed, the regulation will be the first official support of the right to use guide dogs in public areas, You said.
Guide dogs have only been available in China since 2004, when they were a research project conducted by Dalian Medical University.
But their use abroad goes back almost a century. The US and Germany began training guide dogs in the 1920s to aid veterans who lost their sight during World War I. Today, these countries have extremely mature systems for guide dog management.
In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, guide dog use is protected by numerous regulations and is widely accepted by the public.
However, guide dog use remains a relatively new concept in China. Regulations are only the first step in guaranteeing the rights of the blind – public education is even more important, You said.
“Guide dogs allow blind people more freedom and boost their confidence. It helps them to feel they are not a burden on society,” she said. “When they run up against these barriers to dog use in public spaces, it can deal a crushing blow to their confidence.”
And that can be hard to recover.
“I hope people will learn to understand and tolerate the presence of guide dogs. At the very least, they should not discriminate against their users,” You said.