Pursuit of a welcoming society for guide dogs
The four-and-a-half-year-old guide dog named Heimengmeng is more than just assistance for Chen Yan — it is her companion, family and beyond.
"My job requires me to travel frequently. Simply relying on a cane and no guide dog would bring me a lot of unknown dangers," said Chen, a visually impaired piano tuner, adding that the devoted black labrador knows its tasks well and resolutely fulfills them.
Chen is well regarded for her skills. She goes door to door tuning piano for customers. With the help of her guide dog, she has been to almost every corner of Beijing and even served people in other cities.
Like police dogs and search and rescue dogs, guide dogs also have to go through strict screening and training. According to China's national standards for guide dogs issued in 2018, a candidate dog should have a complete pedigree and a clear origin of three generations with no records of aggression, or genetic defects.
Their entire life traverses through four stages — fostering, training, service and retirement. The service period is between 6 and 10 years.
Teng Weimin, former vice chairman of China Association of the Blind, said that there are 17 million blind people in China. Besides children and the elderly, there are about 9 million blind people in employment.
According to international standards based on the above figures, China currently has a requirement of 500 guide dogs, but only about 200 are there in the country as the concept of a guide dog is fairly new, Teng said.
From the experiences with Jenny, Chen's first guide dog, to Heimengmeng, who has been with her for more than two years now, she personally feels that Chinese society is becoming more accepting of guide dogs.
"I was refused entry into almost all public spaces with a guide dog years back. I could even espy Jenny's visible sadness," Chen said, adding that many were afraid that guide dogs would defecate or even attack people.
"I believe it's not because people are unkind, but because they don't know about guide dogs," she added.
Over the past decade, Chen has been trying to create more public awareness of guide dogs through her books, paintings and social media platforms. Her short videos have drawn tens of thousands of followers online.
"Now even the hospital allows Heimengmeng to accompany me in the ward," she said. "Patients are also willing to share a ward with me despite knowing I have a guide dog. I feel very gratified."
China introduced the regulations on barrier-free environment construction in 2012, which clearly stipulates that staff in public places should provide barrier-free services to visually impaired people with guide dogs. The Beijing rail transit operation safety regulations, which came into effect in 2015, allow visually impaired people to bring guide dogs on subways.
"When I go out with my guide dog, if a bus doesn't allow me to board or a restaurant refuses entry, other passengers and guests always speak up for me. Commuters on subways and buses are no longer surprised to see a guide dog," said Zhou Tong, a guide dog owner who works in a game company.
Candie, 16, is the first guide dog to serve in China with an international service dog certification. Her handler Lian Qin said that from ignorance at the beginning to better understanding, the society's increasing acceptance of guide dogs has been a visible process of transition.
The number of guide dogs in China has grown from zero to hundreds, with a many-fold increase in guide dog training centers. Lian hopes that there will be more supporting facilities to make it easier for blind people to travel.
In September 2020, Didi Chuxing launched its "barrier-free travel service," the first phase of which was aimed at users with guide dogs. More than 1.8 million online car-hailing drivers in 74 Chinese cities have joined the initiative, promising not to refuse passengers with guide dogs while providing them with necessary assistance.
On the international Guide Dog Day, which fell on April 28 this year, a film themed on guide dogs was premiered in a bookstore in Beijing. The movie has been made accessible to the visually impaired as well.
"I hope the film will let more people know about guide dogs and convey the spirit of harmonious coexistence," said Huang Yang, the producer.
"If the society is more tolerant of guide dogs, blind people can walk around more freely, and this will bring great benefits to their rehabilitation, employment, education and family life," Teng said.