Everyone is adapting to a world with COVID-19 and our usual routines and habits have greatly changed. There is one group of people often forgotten and not considered — those with visual impairments. Under normal circumstances people with visual impairments experience difficulties, but with the additional challenges of physical distancing and having to touch and be tactile to get around makes their world much more complicated. During times such as these, a guide dog greatly enhances the mobility for a blind person, but throughout the world, guide dog training has been greatly impacted by COVID-19.
Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind (CGDB) had to cancel residential training classes in March for six people who were to receive their guide dog. The classes are three weeks in duration and the recipients come from across Canada to live in a residence together while receiving their training. COVID made this impossible. The future remains unknown, but the national charitable organization, training and providing guide dogs to Canadians since 1984, had to figure out how to adapt and continue its mandate.
“People who are blind need guide dogs, and we have to do whatever we can to adapt to COVID-19 to make sure we continue to help people”, says Jane Thornton, Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder of Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind. “We have been doing this for 36 years. COVID-19 forces us to change the way we do things, but we are adapting as best we can in our new world, so that Canadians who are blind can receive guide dogs.”
Physical distancing makes training challenging, as a person who is blind normally works very physically close with a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor. Travel restrictions and closures in various parts of the country varied and having people go to the National Training Centre of CGDB or going out into the community to train with a guide dog couldn’t happen.
Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind didn’t remain stagnate. Like many charities and businesses, the organization realized that changes were required to remain in operation. It adapted to the fluid situation so that people who are blind and require a guide dog could still train with and receive one. Someone who is blind and has never used a guide dog can cope a little easier, but once you use a guide dog, you will likely always want one. It would be comparable to driving your entire life and your license being taken away. Suddenly, you are no longer completely independent. Without a guide dog, someone may have to rely on other people to get places. It can be devastating, and it can make the difference between being at home and afraid or unable to get out versus living an active and independent lifestyle.
The first step for CGDB was to figure out how training could proceed. Since having clients travel to and reside in a group setting at the National Training Centre wasn’t possible, it was decided to go to the people in what is referred to as domiciliary training. CGDB decided that their Guide Dog Mobility Instructors would travel to each person’s community and train them with a guide dog in their own neighbourhood. There are pros and cons to this method, but it meant that the organization could continue to help people during these difficult times.
Residential training could continue but with only one person at a time living in residence and traveling to the National Training Centre. The analogy is a combination of working at home and in the office. Some training could be done in a residential environment, but the majority would be in communities across the country. Some travel restrictions, especially in eastern Canada, are still impacting guide dog training, but CGDB has done everything it possibly can to ensure as many Canadians as possible can still receive guide dogs. In June, it was announced that training in Ontario could continue, with restrictions eased in more areas, national service expanded in July.
Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind is demonstrating that even charities need to adapt due to COVID-19, and they continue helping people locally in our community.
Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind was established as a registered charity in 1984. CGDB has provided more than 880 professionally trained guide dogs to Canadians who are visually impaired from coast to coast. You can learn more about Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind online at www.guidedogs.ca, including how to donate or more about applying for a guide dog.