Life

Visually impaired Newry man tells of lockdown challenges for him and his guide dog

As we come out of lockdown Newry man David McClurg tells us what life has been like for someone who relies on a guide dog to negotiate the world around them

Newry man David McClurg and his guide dog Paxton. Picture by Hugh Russell
Maureen Coleman

SINCE lock-down started back in March, Newry man David McClurg hasn't set foot on public transport, nor does he intend to for the foreseeable future. A regular bus user before, he prefers to walk into town these days; although a simple stroll isn't without its challenges either.

Shopping has become a stressful experience for the 56-year-old father-of-two and yet it's something he's still determined to do to avoid being completely cut off from the community. But as lockdown restrictions begin to ease around travel and socialising, David is bracing himself for the inevitable obstacles he will face and is calling on the public to see him, to acknowledge him and to help him, whenever possible.

David is visually impaired and is both a guide dog and white cane user. Born with poor sight, his condition deteriorated over the years, so he only sees shadow and light. For almost three years, he has been accompanied everywhere he goes by his faithful friend Paxton, a Golden Retriever guide dog. It's a partnership that works well – David working as the navigator while Paxton is the 'driver'.

But Paxton isn't trained to comply with social distancing measures when out shopping or using the bus and David is nervous the relaxing of restrictions will lead to greater challenges for both him and his guide dog.

“Before lock-down Paxton was able to bring me into town on the bus,” explains David. “I was able to put all my trust in him. But when lockdown kicked it, social distancing became a problem. Paxton doesn't know how to socially distance so it made it too awkward to use a bus. It also put more pressure on me to work him, to slow him down.

“Some people wouldn't move for us but expected us to move instead, so I've avoided public transport for the last few months. I just walk everywhere now. At the start, it wasn't too bad because there was no-one around really but now things have started to ease, there's a lot more people out and about.

“It's bad enough when you're not able to see anyone; you feel very isolated and in a world of your own. But when you have cyclists coming up right behind you with no bell or walkers who expect Paxton to move for them which he's not trained to do, it can be really frustrating.

“He's a very quick learner though. If he sees someone walking towards us, he pulls us into a drive way to let them walk past. But to be honest, you'd think the other person would make an effort. It's extremely challenging at times and I can tell Paxton's getting stressed by it all though he's normally so laid back.

“I just wish people would treat us with the same respect that they'd like to be treated with themselves.”

Shopping has become particularly fraught for guide dog owners like David, who volunteers for the Newry-based community service Good Morning, Good Neighbour. Before lockdown, David and Paxton regularly spent time in their local shops and shopping centre. But Paxton isn't used to, nor is he trained for, waiting in queues, observing the two-metre rule or following the one way system most stores have in place.

In addition, David can no longer rely on the help of strangers to point him in the right direction or gently guide him by the elbow. And while many people are mindful of his situation, others are less patient.

“Paxton doesn't understand about queues. He doesn't know what the white lines on the ground are for or that once we enter a shop, we have to keep moving one way and can't turn back,” David says.

“It's confusing for him trying to keep his distance from people. It's awkward trying to get around a shop now because people are reluctant to approach us to offer help.

“Then when I get to the till there are screens up and I can't see the card machine. It's difficult to hear what the person is saying behind the screen. All of this is putting additional strain on myself and Paxton but at the same time, I want to go to the shops so I don't feel so isolated.

“I've had people get very frustrated with us. It's not so bad when I'm with my wife or my sons and quite often, it's the people wearing masks and gloves who push in front or get annoyed because they think they're immune. I had one woman accuse me of holding up the queue. Her language was unrepeatable. But she could see I had a guide dog and a white cane.”

At his local Tesco store, staff have been amenable and helpful, he says. One shop assistant held on to the front of a trolley while David held on to the handles. The trolley between them meant they were adhering to social distancing and the employee guided him safely through the store.

“That made all the difference,” he says. “I totally understand that people can't come over to me and offer assistance but that shop assistant took the time to help me. It's really the only place I'll shop now because of this.”

Research conducted by the charity Guide Dogs in the first week of June found that just 22 per cent of the public would feel ‘completely comfortable' offering to help someone with sight loss while social distancing measure were in place. Reasons included not knowing how to help from two meters away and being concerned about making physical contact.

While the charity concedes these are valid concerns, it points out that people with sight loss are hugely concerned now about going to supermarkets or accessing public transport. The research also found that although 78 per cent of adults surveyed understood that those with sight loss would face additional challenges while social distancing, 65 per cent hadn't considered this prior to taking the survey.

To help combat the increasing isolation felt by the visually impaired during lockdown, Guide Dogs has launched a new campaign called ‘Be There' which provides encouragement and guidance on how the public can approach and offer support while maintaining social distancing.

The three steps are:

:: Keep your distance, but don't disappear

People with sight loss may find it challenging to social distance, so if you see someone with a guide dog or a long cane then you can help them by making sure you keep two metres away, but that doesn't mean you can't also offer your help.

:: Say hello and offer your help

Simply by letting someone with sight loss know you are nearby; you are giving them the opportunity to ask for any help if they need it. People often feel unsure about their ability to help someone with sight loss, but their request could be a simple as finding out where a shopping queue starts, or if there is a safer place to cross a road.

:: Describe the scene

By describing what you can see to someone with sight loss, you can help them to understand the environment and navigate accordingly.

David says: “Please don't treat us like we've got the plague. Just a simple 'hello' can let us know you're in a queue.

“Give us a description of the environment. Are there obstacles coming up? Are there many people ahead of us?

“And please bear in mind, that if it's stressful for you, just think how much more stressful it is for a guide dog and its owner. We're not asking for much; just some understanding and respect.”

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