Xu Jian and his guide dog Daimeng were refused entry on public transport at least four times in the recent month.
“From taking a bus, taxis or booking taxi-hailing services, the drivers refused to allow the guide dog to get in,” said the sight-impaired man living in Fengtai District, Beijing.
Monday marks White Cane Safety Day, an international event designated by the World Blind Union to help the public better understand blindness and visual handicap.
China has over 17 million blind and visually-impaired people. Most are restricted to home due to the inconvenience of going out.
Statistics from the World Health Organisation estimate the country is home to the largest number of blind people in the world – about five million. But there are fewer than 200 guide dogs across China, according to Liang Jia, whose Dalian China Guide Dog Training Centre graduates about 20 canines each year.
Across the nation, “it is not rare to see guide dogs remaining unwelcome in public places”, says Liang.
Xu Jian feels frustrated that his guide dog is often treated as a pet, often patting or feeding him.
“They don’t understand the dog is working. The disturbance can disrupt its work, which may cause the blind to fall or lose direction,” Xu said.
In May, blind Chinese singer Zhou Yunpeng post on his Weibo, saying that his guide dog was denied when he checked in a hotel.
“Guide dogs work very hard. They deserve public respect. Those who refuse guide dogs actually deny entry for blind people,” he said.
Chinese specifications require that starred hotels have space to keep guide dogs.
Some question the safety of guide dogs in public places, and require the dogs to wear mouth muffles.
Wei Xuchuan, president of the Association of the Blind in southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality, said when guide dogs are working they need open mouths for heat dissipation.
“It is nothing to worry about with guide dogs barking or even hurting people. The selection of guide dogs is as strict as selecting astronauts,” said Han Fang with the China Guide Dog Training Center.
She said Chinese guide dog training bases select Labrador and Golden retriever, species known for being docile and friendly. Worldwide, there has not been a single case of guide dogs hurting people.
Founded in 2006, the training base is the first non-profit guide dog training institution in China. A total of 154 guide dogs trained by the base are in service in over 20 Chinese cities.
The public’s reluctance to accept service dogs underscores China’s mixed record at improving the lives of its disabled citizens.
“With an ever-improving economic level and barrier-free facilities, how could we still refuse guide dogs helping the blind in public places?” Han said.
According to the Shanghai Customs, China introduces over 2,000 trained guide dogs, security dogs and companion dogs via customs every year.
The world’s first guide dog training center started in 1817 in Vienna. Guide dogs became internationally recognized after the First World War, when dogs assisted veterans who had lost their vision during the war.
But China severely lags behind when it comes to service dogs for the (visually) handicapped. Not only are there very few guide dogs, the lack of general understanding of their role has also hampered their public acceptance.