S'pore's first woman guide dog handler: I faced discrimination, people would scream & run away

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership| October 12, 11:24 AM

Oct. 10 is World Sight Day, a global event meant to draw attention to issues on blindness and visual disabilities.

A place for us is published by Ethos Books.

The book, which you can buy a copy of here, is a part-autobiography, part-reflection by Cassandra Chiu, the first woman to be a guide dog handler in Singapore. Chiu is a psychotherapist as well as a motivational and inspirational speaker.

We reproduce excerpts from her book here, sharing her experiences with her guide dog, Esme, in Singapore.

Esme is now retired, and Chiu's new guide dog is named Elke.

By Cassandra Chiu

Many service personnel and members of the public had never heard of or seen a guide dog before, and understandably were not aware of the legislation or the difference between a guide dog and a pet.

Prior to Esme, there were only three other guide dogs that ever spent a substantial time here.

Stacy, Nero & Kendra

Stacy, the first guide dog that came to Singapore in the early 1980s, had to be sent back to Australia after a short stint as society back then was not ready to accept guide dogs in public places.

Nero, who was guiding Alex, a staff member at the American embassy to Singapore in the early 2000s, resorted to getting his wife to drive him and Nero around because as he puts it, the “attitude towards guide dogs was still stuck in the fifth century!”

And Kendra, who was a gift to a Singaporean business man who is blind, travelled around the world with him and did not spend a lot of time in Singapore.

So when Esme was brought into Singapore in 2011 as the first guide dog trained and designated to work in Singapore, society was not quite ready to frequently see and accept a guide dog amidst them in public places and on public transport.

It was guaranteed that each time Esme and I ventured out, people screamed! Ran away! And demanded that the dog be taken away!

Convincing Tanglin Shopping Centre to accept Esme

The first challenge I faced after getting home was gaining permission to enter Tanglin Shopping Centre, where my new counselling clinic was completing renovations.

Although discussions with management started before I left for guide dog training in Australia, they were still unwilling to allow a paying tenant in with her mobility aid. I remember the time after I had just returned from Melbourne, where I had to leave Esme outside with Aaron each time I entered the building to check on the renovations.

During those visits to my new clinic, I resorted back to fumbling around with a now very foreign white cane, one that felt skinnier and more fragile then I remembered.

Using my white cane for the first time in a long while felt very strange, foreign, and my footsteps were so clumsy, tentative and uncertain.

The cane works by alerting its user to obstacles; when obstacles along the way are inadvertently hit, the user knows to go around it.

However, a guide dog works by avoiding obstacles altogether, and most times, a guide dog handler may not even be aware of the obstacles around since the guide dog just magically whizzes us around whatever is in the way. Quite a difference!

Back and forth I went with the building’s management — providing them with the supportive governmental legislation, information on guide dogs, proof that my guide dog was trained to international standards and even supportive friends and acquaintances wrote in to the building’s owners to seek their understanding on my situation.

After Aaron left, frustratingly I had to leave Esme home whilst I took a taxi to work.

Thankfully, the issue was resolved a few weeks later, just before Christmas, thanks to a kind gentleman Mr. Tang See Chim, whom eventually managed to convince the management to allow guide dogs in.

I have not met this gentleman till this date, and neither do I know him, but his kind actions in advocating for guide dogs allowed me to go to work normally. Thank you, Mr. Tang!

But all major buildings along Orchard Road welcome guide dogs now

Tanglin Shopping Centre is within five minutes’ walk of Singapore’s shopping belt, Orchard Road, which houses about 40 shopping malls and hotels, yet at that time only a small handful were comfortable or okay with a guide dog entering their premises.

I am proud to say that, today, some seven years on, after much writing in for permission to allow myself and my guide dog into the different buildings, and continuing to visit these buildings to show that a guide dog does not inconvenience anyone or cause any nuisance, and the increased awareness about guide dogs, all the major buildings along and around Orchard Road now welcome individuals who are blind and guided by their guide dogs!

Of course, there were negative experiences

A person who is blind using a guide dog as a mobility aid in any public place is most definitely not inconspicuous! Eyebrows raise on their own volition, tongues go a-wagging. You get the picture!

We would not ordinarily expect to see a dog on a bus, or a train, in the shopping mall, seated next to you in a restaurant, or trying to board your taxi.

One of the earliest incidences in which I was physically injured because of discrimination against guide dogs was having my ribs cracked because a taxi drove off with the upper half of my body still in the doorway as I was pleading for the driver to ferry us.

With the aim of bringing more awareness to guide dogs, and to encourage tolerance, I started sharing some of my uglier experiences on social media, Facebook.

They included the time when Esme and I were left waiting for over an hour outside the changing rooms at Forever21 while the store assistant tried to get permission for me to try on some clothes.

There was also once when we were turned away from a well-known ice-cream outlet at Holland Village because it was a weekend and there was no manager on duty to verify that there is legislation permitting guide dogs in eateries.

On another occasion, I dropped by a fast food outlet at Jurong Park to grab a quick coffee to go and was refused service. The outlet was especially busy that day as they were giving out free McMuffins.

The store manager told me that dogs were not allowed, and after I explained the supportive legislation and gave the entire explanation that guide dogs are mobility aids for the blind, the manager relented and agreed that guide dogs are allowed into eateries, but I was told “not today” as they were very crowded.

A little compassion goes a long way

My little princess who was with me during some of the incidents got very upset, and often asked, why are people so unkind to Mama and Esme? I eventually stopped her from going on Facebook to shield her from the online bullying and ugliness.

When I explained that it’s not that they are unkind, but because they do not understand that Esme is a guide dog, my daughter retorted,

“But they should know, Esme and you are in the papers and on TV so often, and even on ‘Little Red Dot’, why didn’t the children tell their parents about guide dogs?”

Sadly, knowledge is useless without compassion.

I also shared on Esme’s Facebook page about some of the positive experiences and thanking those who have been inclusive towards us like taxi and bus drivers, fellow passengers who helped explained to others about the role of a guide dog, strangers offering us help with reading out bus numbers or crossing the street.

And inclusive businesses like Isetan, Itacho Sushi, Ben & Jerry’s, Benjamin Browns, Ikea, Cold Storage, the list goes on.

Blindness should not be treated as a tragedy

Blindness is a severe disability by anybody’s standards. Eastern worldviews consider becoming blind a tragedy; it does not matter whether the blindness was acquired at birth or through an accident or illness later.

Blindness is a condition that changes somebody’s life for the worse; it is seen as something to be pitied.

Independence of every description goes out the window. The person who is blind must be helped or protected, in all facets of life and prevented from doing things that may cause them to hurt themselves.

This overprotective attitude is evident from my experiences at school and shared by many students with disabilities, both in the past and currently.

We are restricted from participating fully in school curriculum and this pervasive attitude is not only seen at schools but at the workplace too.

In the past 20 years, I have seen huge advancements in our government making information and the physical environment like walkways and transport more accessible for persons with disabilities.

However, access to social inclusion is sadly lacking. Some would think we who are disabled are the embodiment of bad luck or have some mystic powers that would cause a major catastrophe!

I do not apologise for my honesty, or the choice of offensive vocabulary quoted in the following pages. Without examining the naked truth, we cannot grasp the true damage it is causing, and find the will for a way forward.

There is no excuse for discrimination

Perhaps a recent conversation with my daughter illustrates our hopes best — I was asking her for her thoughts and feelings about having a mother who is blind.

She replied,

“I don’t see what all the fuss is all about. My friends are always so surprised, or they freak out when they realise that you are blind; but you take care of me, teach me how to make my favourite shepherd’s pie and lasagne, go to work, help me with my homework… no different from their moms, right?”

My hope is that more families and communities of people who are disabled can come to feel the way my daughter does.

That they can have the same expectations from those of us who are disabled, as they would from an able-bodied loved one. In this way, those of us who are disabled would have the impetus to strive towards being an “active agent” of our own lives, be capable of being a “giver”, even if it is only in some realms.

There would then be no more excuse or reason for discrimination.

Top photo via FB/Elke The Global Guide Dog & Chronicles of Esme the guide dog