As a blind guide dog user, I want social distancing to stay forever

People with disabilities are forgotten again (Photo: Grace Elizabeth Photography)

It’s 10 a.m. and I’m walking down the street to catch my next train for work with my guide dog, Ida.

Although it’s still early days, I’ve already been punched twice on the shoulder, and a member of the public has come into my personal space to pet Ida, even though she’s wearing a harness that clearly displays the words: “S ‘please don’t distract me’. , I am a working guide dog”.

It’s everyday incidents like these that make me wish social distancing rules were still in place.

But for most people with low vision, social distancing has made life more difficult. We can’t see the signs on the floor to tell which way to go or where to stand in a queue.

As blindness is a spectrum, some of us have no depth perception and cannot judge the correct distance to things or people around us – we usually have to get very close to objects to to be able to see them.

However, as a guide dog owner, I reveled in the lack of contact that the two-meter rule entailed. And as controversial as it may be, I miss people sticking to social distancing so strictly, because it allows me to get on with my day and not be continually interrupted by the public.

As a blind woman – living without vision since 2013 due to arthritis – I rely on my guide dog to lead the life I choose.

I am a disability awareness consultant and content creator. The four and a half year partnership I had with my guide dog allowed me to run my own business and travel the world with confidence.

The busier the city I go to, the more focused it becomes – weaving and deflecting me into chaos, reducing brain fatigue and concentration on my part.

In addition to the practical help she gives me, Ida is a joy to be around. Whether she’s ‘frog dogging’ on the floor at a lively conference or kicking people’s legs with her rambunctious tail, she makes an impact wherever she goes.

Ida and I spent the first six months of the pandemic protecting ourselves because I had no immune system.

The sheer number of people ignoring the sign on Ida’s harness and insisting on distracting her amazes me.

When the restrictions were eased, to say we were both beyond thrilled to be in the world again is an understatement. Going back outside for the first time, I worried about protecting both of us from Covid. This, combined with my blindness, made it a very stressful time.

Fortunately, the first forays were with my sighted husband, so he was able to keep us safe and socially distanced. When we finally ventured out on our own, to my surprise, I found it extremely refreshing that Ida and I had smooth, uninterrupted journeys – no one distracted her or bumped into us because they had to keep their distances.

Now that social distancing is all but gone, the sheer number of people ignoring the sign on Ida’s harness and insisting on distracting her amazes me.

If I’m blind and know what the signature on his harness says, you have no excuse.

Just days after lockdown number three ended, I was at reception during my hospital appointment – with my husband and Ida – waiting to have my blood pressure checked.

Ida was calmly lying at my husband’s feet until a receptionist came from behind the counter and started talking to her.

“I bet you worked hard today?” she said, walking over to Ida and looking into her eyes. This quickly made her tail wag.

“No, sorry, she works,” I had to tell her. I felt extremely uncomfortable and exasperated.

It was one of my first medical appointments I had attended in person since the pandemic began, and already this person was potentially putting me at risk.

Although I said that, the woman sat down in the seat next to my husband and reached out to stroke the now standing Ida.

Sassy Wyatt, a petite white woman, smiling while leaning on her guide dog, Ida, who is a black Labrador-retriever cross and wearing a British guide dog harness, in front of a bush.

If I’m blind and know what the signature on his harness says, you have no excuse.
(Photo: Grace Elizabeth Photography)

“My friend has a guide dog and lets me say hello even when it works,” she said.

Allowing the public to distract our dogs on the harness is why this ignorant pattern continues. And owners like me need to reprimand our guide dogs, even though she was diligently doing her job moments ago.

It’s something I unfortunately got used to. No matter how polite I am in asking the audience not to distract Ida, I’ve received verbal reactions from people upset about my limitations, saying the pandemic is over and telling me I haven’t to worry about social distancing.

Pandemic or no pandemic, I shouldn’t have to clarify or justify my reasoning to tell you that my guide dog is working.

I sincerely believed that the horror of Covid and its aftermath made people appreciate the complexity of living with a disability; visible or not by welcoming more vulnerable people.

However, he feels that with society returning to normal, people with disabilities are once again being forgotten.

If a guide dog’s role is to be the eyes of a visually impaired person, it would be safe to assume that interfering with those “eyes” is dangerous for the person being guided.

Trying to get my guide dog’s attention – whether he’s sitting, standing or walking – is like a passenger in your car grabbing the steering wheel while you’re driving.

Although I love being able to hug my family and sit next to my friends in a pub – and things like the station staff being able to guide me as I hold their elbow and follow their body movements — are beneficial, the other risks that come with people getting too close, that means I would live happily ever after with social distancing.

I hope people can learn from the pandemic and continue to give people with disabilities the space they need to exist and be independent, without distracting service dogs or intruding on our personal boundaries.

This needs to happen so that people with disabilities can feel confident and safe when traveling, going out in public and going about their daily lives.

Do you have a story you would like to share? Contact us by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk.

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