Saturday, May 05, 2007

The use of guide dogs services

When Ron Colombo, 68, goes out on his own, it's not the first time that he bumps into a lamppost or slips on a pavement, but he gets around.

However, possessing poor eyesight - he is blind in one eye and has one-tenth vision in the other - means he would be able to move about much easier with the help of a guide dog, a crucial aid that is missing in Malta.

Having recently being appointed chairman of the new non-profit group the Foundation for Guide Dogs and Services for the Blind, Mr Colombo is planning to introduce the first guide dog service on the island.

Mr Colombo, who is also president of the Malta Society of the Blind, has established contact with a guide dog school in Bratislava, Slovakia, to bring the first three guide dogs to Malta in September next year.

Guide dogs are an expensive business and each one will cost the foundation €10,000 (Lm4,347). Luckily, the foundation is counting on receiving about Lm16,000 from the money raised through last year's TV charity marathon L-Istrina.

Mr Colombo points out that training a puppy to become a guide dog is a lengthy process. Pedigree puppies, usually Labradors, are specifically bred for a temperate bloodline. When merely a few weeks old they're homed with "puppy walkers" for a year to learn basic obedience, after which they start a guide dog school for another eight months. This intense process usually only reaps four dogs that can work as guide dogs from every 10 trained.

They then undergo three to four weeks training with their new owner. Guide dogs usually work for eight to nine years, before getting tired.

"At the moment we cannot breed our own guide dogs and to change the situation we are planning to send someone abroad for a three-year training course," Mr Colombo said in an interview.
The foundation estimates that it needs 45 to 50 guide dogs in Malta, a number that would give a new lease of life and independence to blind people or those with impaired vision.

Mr Colombo explained that in Malta there are about 800 people with sight problems who are registered and receiving benefits. However, the society believes that if one takes into account the number of people with acute sight impairment, the figure would rise to 3,000.

"Not everybody would need a guide dog. There are two categories of potential guide dog owners: The first are those with tertiary education who are working; and those who are in their mid-50s and 60s who lost their sight due to degenerative diseases such as diabetes. Unfortunately, there are many people with impaired vision who stay indoors and do nothing - with a guide dog you can go anywhere at any time," he said.

So what has taken the introduction of such a service so long?

"We have even more fundamental things that don't exist, such as the lack of a mobility and orientation service for blind people in their homes and neighbourhood," Mr Colombo said.
This service exists in all the other 24 EU member states and, despite battling with the Family Ministry for the past three years to introduce this service, nothing has materialised yet.

"Basically, the government has to budget to send people on a two-year training course to start providing this service. We have made our proposals and we're not giving up on this, nor are we going away," he insisted.

"The whole ethos in Malta seems to be that when you lose your sight you get state benefits and that's it."

Bringing guide dogs to Malta is just the first step. Mr Colombo believes the public's attitude towards allowing guide dogs to enter most places will also have to change.

"I think there will be some resistance initially, but not much I hope. An Englishman in Gozo has been testing to see where he can or cannot go accompanied by a guide dog and he got more favourable results here than in the UK. The problems he encountered were in the odd restaurant," he added.

Another wall the foundation has to breach is persuading Air Malta to allow guide dogs to travel alongside their owner for free and not placed in the hold.

"Other airlines have no problem with this. An EU directive stipulates that by 2010 all public transport has to be accessible to the blind, so we hope Air Malta will change its views," he said.
"It's a question of attitude, that's what we have to chip away at. Once we have the service of mobility and orientation, together with the guide dogs, there will be no limitations."


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