‘KZN behind when it comes to guide dogs’

Gail Spooner with her guide dog Kenya.
Gail Spooner with her guide dog Kenya.
Ian Carbutt

Pietermaritzburg - Gail Spooner, who has been blind for 30 years, aims to educate people about guide dogs in a city that only has two of these “life changing” companions, she says.

“I was diagnosed with bilateral macular degeneration in 1987. The blindness started gradually and it was only last year that my right eye became completely blind.

“People often say I don’t ‘look blind,’ but I mean, how are you supposed to look blind?

“I’ve found that Pietermaritzburg is very ignorant when it comes to the blind and guide dogs especially. Robin Giles’ incident at the Department of Home Affairs last week, where officials would not let him in because they don’t allow dogs, was an example of how uneducated our community is about guide dogs.

“Even the KwaZulu-Natal Society for the Blind doesn’t advocate for guide dogs and people don’t realise what they’re missing out on.

“I got my first guide dog in 1990 and it has been such a lovely experience, because you’re no longer bound to one place. You get your independence and mobility back, as well as the company of a beautiful companion.”

She said going to new places requires team effort between Kenya, her guide dog, and herself.

“For instance when we cross the robots, she looks and I listen and we guide each other through the traffic.

“At a grocery store, I can tell Kenya I want to get some bread and she’ll guide me there.

“I can even say to her, let’s go get the bread that mommy likes and she’ll know.

“Our biggest challenge is the way people react to her. Often, when I walk with Kenya, people want to play with her and I always have to explain to them that they can’t do that, because they are distracting her from her work. I also keep having to tell people, never to feed her.

“That is the number one rule. Because these dogs are bred so heavily they have a whole lot of allergies.

“When one applies for a guide dog at SA Guide Dog Association, they look at your profile and find a dog that matches your personality and lifestyle. Thereafter the dog is trained for your specific needs, and then brought to you and monitored for about two weeks before you guys are left on your own.

“As an applicant, you only have to pay R100 application fee and SA Guide Dog Association finds a sponsor to fund the other R20 000. They do this so that no one is excluded because of lack of funds.

“Although having a guide dog can be quite daunting sometimes, and much like any other relationships we have our squabbles, as she can get cheeky with me, in the end it is all worth it.”

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