The South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind was runner up in this year’s CSI Legacy Awards in the category ‘Best Rising NGO.
The name captures it – but not all of it! This unique NGO offers a range of services to the visually impaired, the physically impaired as well as children with Autism. Their operations are divided into two categories; the breeding and training of Assistance Dogs and the delivery of Orientation and Mobility training and services especially through the use of the White Cane. A well trained Assistance Dog is truly a life saver for the hundreds of children and adults in South Africa who currently use an Assistance Dog as is the White Cane.
Naturally, the SA Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind would like to increase this number of beneficiaries even more. It has been estimated that 1% of Africans on the continent are blind, mostly from cataracts, glaucoma and trachoma. In South Africa, the figure is around 400 000 people, or 0.9% of the population. In addition, an estimated 1.2 million South Africans have some form of autism – 2% of the population. However, the accuracy of these statistics are debatable, a situation that the Association wishes to address through their trans-disciplinary partnership with the University of Pretoria.
Most visually impaired people were not born that way; the majority lose their sight later in life. This can be devastating for an adult accustomed to being independent.
‘Many people who lose their sight later in life become afraid to leave their homes. As a result, depression sets in,’ says Tanya Schonwald, Head of Strategic Corporate Partnerships at SA Guide-Dogs for the Blind. Depression, anxiety and low self-confidence are common among the visually impaired, many of whom remain hidden from our sight, effectively confined to their homes for want of assistance.
A Guide Dog can change everything for those affected. A highly trained Guide Dog is an essential companion, safely navigating routes to work, community centres and shopping areas, they assist their owner to navigate traffic and they are absolutely vigilant to any sign of danger. It takes approximately 24 months to train a Guide Dog at an approximate cost of R500 000 per dog – yet qualifying owners pay only R5. Each dog works for about ten years, after which they are retired. Some stay on with their owners as pets, but many have to be given up for adoption as some apartment buildings, for instance, will allow an Assistance Dog but not a pet.
When out in public, a trained Guide Dog knows how to find important orientation points, such as kerb edges, lift doors, the bottoms and tops of steps and escalators, and zebra crossings on roads. They are trained to concentrate, and will not easily be distracted – which is why anyone wanting to pat or cuddle a Guide Dog should always ask the owner’s permission first, as patting can distract the working dog.
For Assistance Dogs trained to help the blind or the disabled, training is intense. Service Dogs are first taught the basics; to retrieve, push and pull. As the dog progresses, the tasks become more complex. By the time they graduate training, they know how to pick up dropped objects, retrieve items from difficult-to-reach places, open and close drawers, and operate door handles, fitted with a strap, all in aid of assisting the person in a wheelchair.
When it comes to autism, Support Dogs have made an enormous difference, not only to affected children but to entire families. SA Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind selects dogs with especially calm temperaments to be paired with children aged 5 to 12 who have been formally diagnosed with autism.
They provide a safety-net for autistic children, who have the tendency to run off when distracted and to become emotionally upset over issues that may seem small to the rest of us. An autism Support Dog will immediately recognise signs of a meltdown and sit with the affected child, soothing them with their calm, loving presence.
Cathy Nader, whose daughter Bella lives with profound autism, said that since they had acquired Jolla, their autism Support Dog, Bella had become far calmer and more grounded, and as a result, the family was able to get out and do more together. In addition, having a dog’s harness to hold onto had gotten Bella walking better and socialising more.
‘Bella is an affectionate, friendly child and has always wanted to play with other children, but just hasn’t been able to close that gap. Having Jolla makes other children come into her space now, into her world. Bella gets very excited and proud to show Jolla to them.’
With autism on the rise, and a high percentage of South Africans affected by visual impairment and disability, the need for this unique service is high. The SA Guide-Dogs Association is dependent on monthly contributors, legacies, corporate funding, trusts &foundations and fundraising events to continue its vital work.
The Association also has a registered training facility, the College of Orientation and Mobility. The College provides accredited training for Orientation and Mobility Practitioners, who help clients acquire independence after injury or illness renders them visually impaired or disabled. Not all people affected can or want to make use of an Assistance Dog, hence we deliver a service that enables independence through the use of a White Cane. In addition, Orientation and Mobility practitioners assist with daily living skills, acquiring the confidence and skill to travel independently, handle payments, receiving change, cooking and so much more.
Ultimately, SA Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind strives to enable independence, to enable equality and inclusion to the visually and physically impaired as well as children with autism. To learn more about how you can partner with the South African Guide Dogs Association Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or contact 011 705 3512