Service dogs are diligent, focused and hardworking, but they have no idea we are living through a pandemic.
That’s the message University of Victoria student Georgia Pike wants people to remember when they cross paths with herself and her guide dog, Grainger.
“Guide dogs don’t know how to social distance,” she said. “If we’re getting in line for something, they will go up to the person in front of us because that’s what the dog has been trained to do.”
October is Blindness Awareness Month, shining a spotlight on life without or with diminished sight, a reality for roughly 500,000 Canadians, according to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
Navigating the world with minimal vision had its challenges before the pandemic, but now, cutting someone off or sitting too close to another person on the bus could be a health or safety concern. While Pike said many people are kind and understanding, she has had a handful of experiences with hostile or angry people.
“We’re in a tense time. I think the main message is just to take a step back and assess your situation. Not everybody is maybe as capable as you are,” Pike said.
She encourages being specific and patient.
“If a person who has a guide dog or a cane is doing something that is bothering you, or they’re in your way, just say, ‘hey, here’s what I’m noticing and here’s how you can fix it. Like, ‘you’re sitting too close to me but if you move two seats to your right, that’s perfect.’”
Wendy Cox, executive director for the Victoria Disability Resource Centre, said people need to be aware that not everyone can easily step off a path to allow for physical distancing. People with mobility disabilities are often reliant on those around them to move out of the way.
Cox said situational awareness and compassion will go a long way.
“Really it would just be nice if society as a whole practiced this, no matter what their beliefs are.”
Pike said even Grainger is starting to adjust to the new normal, but there are other elements of the pandemic that strain mobility for people with vision impairment. She often relies on touch to navigate her environment, and sometimes seeks help from strangers.
“If I was lost somewhere and I just needed to get to the next block over or had to ask someone, ‘can you tell me where this specific entrance is?’ my automatic reaction would be to grab onto their elbow and have them guide me that way,” she said. “Now, you’re not supposed to touch people.”
Hearing is another sense Pike relies on heavily. But with masks and barriers, that has become increasingly difficult.
“It’s just that much more important to have a clear voice, to have patience and to speak slowly,” she said.
Communication and kindness are really the best tools, Pike said.