More and more blind people from Asian and other minority groups in the UK are gaining independence by using a guide dog.
‘We’re getting across the message that a dog can change your life,’ says Graham Kensett of the Guide Dogs charity, which is running a campaign to make people from ethnic groups aware of its services. ‘Whatever your background, a guide dog can change your life.’
Many people are unfamiliar with the idea that a specially-trained dog can guide a blind person safely through busy streets and dangerous traffic, so Guide Dogs is taking its trained Labradors and Alsatians to melas all over the country. At a Bangladeshi festival in London many people said they had never heard of Guide Dogs.
Graham Kensett told Pukaar News that there can be cultural barriers to overcome: ‘We made history when a young Muslim student, Mohammed Khatri, got his guide dog because Muslim scholars issued a fatwa (religious edict) so that the dog can accompany him into the mosque.’ Now his dog Vargo has a special kennel at the Bilal Mosque in Leicester, breaking 1500 years of tradition.
Mohammed says Vargo has transformed his life: ‘I live away from home to study at university and I play cricket for the Blind England team. Before I had Vargo it was difficult travelling to matches around the country – I had to be guided everywhere – so it’s brilliant having him. It’s as though my life is more complete.’ Ibrahim Mogra of the Muslim Council of Great Britain says: ‘Some schools of law believe the saliva of a dog is unclean and that Muslims must avoid getting it on their skin and clothes if they are to be fit for prayer. The fatwa was granted by Islamic scholars to allow the dog to enter the mosque.
‘Islam is a religion of compassion towards human beings, but also towards animals. We found a way to allow a Muslim to use a guide dog on the way to prayer.’ At first Mohammed’s mother Shabna wouldn’t touch the dog and told it not to come near her. She didn’t believe Vargo could guide her son on busy roads. She says, ‘One day I followed them and when I saw them I was amazed. I went home and cried. Now he’s part of the family and we all love him. He lets my son live an independent life.’
Pervez Hussain, who works for the police and is a DJ by night, says his guide dog gave him back his independence. ‘It was wonderful to be out in the open air and hear the birds sing. I even attempted to walk to work through two feet of snow because it was a challenge.’ Until recently some Muslim taxi drivers refused to accept guide dogs in their cabs, but attitudes have changed. ‘Now they understand and are happy to take the blind person with their dog,’ says a driver waiting outside Leicester railway station.
Manzoor Moghal, chairman of the Muslim Forum, says: ‘Islam is a practical, logical and scientific faith. It’s also very flexible and in this modern day and age when you have guide dogs which can help blind people to move around with greater freedom why should anybody put obstacles in their way?’ Student Rakhi Solanki takes her guide dog into a Hindu temple. The first occasion was during women’s Thursday prayers when the worshippers danced up to her dog and patted her. Rakhi says, ‘It was kind and generous of everyone to welcome us both.’ Chairman of the temple Rashmikant Joshi says, ‘It was really wonderful to see smiling faces welcoming the guide dog. This is something rare. There’s a really low take-up of guide dogs within the Asian community.’
Graham Kensett says many Asian people are unfamiliar with dogs. Families stroking the sweet-natured Labradors Guide Dogs takes to Asian festivals tell him that many Indian people are scared of dogs because they are not exposed to them. ‘Many communities rely on their families for help, which could be a reason they don’t apply for many guide dogs. Also there’s the misconception that a guide dog is expensive.’ Guide Dogs breeds 1000 puppies a year and charges a nominal 50 pence for a fully-trained dog as well as providing lifelong help and support.’ Sana Viner, a solicitor whose guide dog accompanies her to her office in Birmingham, says: ‘Families need to be supportive and open-minded; to understand why someone may need a guide dog. It allows blind people to be independent and travel around the country and the whole world by themselves.’
Graham Kensett stresses that applicants do not have to be totally blind: ‘If your sight is deteriorating a guide dog can give you greater confidence and motivation. ‘Anyone who knows someone who may need help should tell them about us.’
Guide Dogs 0845 3727 499