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MORE than half of Canberra is fearful of sight loss, believing it means becoming dependent. But for Jo Weir and many other blind people that research from Guide Dogs NSW/ACT couldn’t be further from the truth.
Jo was 18 when she started to lose her eyesight and, more than 20 years later, she lives on her own in Yass and works for Guide Dogs NSW/ACT in Canberra.
Her fiance Justin Simpson, 48, of Macgregor, started to lose his eyesight in his 20s and only in recent years retired from his job in the public service.
“There’s an assumption that you need someone to look after you, which you most certainly don’t!” says Jo, who in an earlier life ran a llama farm.
“Often the barriers are what other people put in front of you rather than something tangible.”
The pair owe a lot of their independence to their guide dogs, Mr Wiley, who has been with Jo for more than five years, and Yarrin, who’s been with Justin for seven.
“I was an independent mobile person, but Yarrin just enhanced that life enormously,” Justin says.
“He also makes the whole experience so much more comforting.”
Jo and Justin are part of the lucky minority who have a guide dog, because a lack of funds is depriving 75 per cent of eligible people from having one. While being a guide-dog handler comes with amazing benefits, Jo and Justin say there’s also a lot of misunderstanding.
“You’re very much a team, a partnership. You can’t have one without the other,” Jo says.
“The handler is making the decision to cross the road, but if someone is running a red light the guide dog can be that back-up that lets you know not to go.”
Like any relationship, Justin says, it takes time to become a team.
“Guide dogs don’t walk straight out of a box ready to go. The dogs get training before you get them and then, once you do, it’s another six to 12 months of hard work with them,” he says.
“It’s an investment. They don’t magically improve your life straight away but you get the pleasure to work and grow up together.”
Jo says she and Mr Wiley are at that stage where they know what each other is thinking and feeling and work as a team.
“It’s like any relationship, it is built on trust and respect,” she says.
And while the main relationship is between the handler and the guide dog, there is also some trust given to the public.
Jo says it’s important people don’t distract or make the dogs the centre of attention, even though they’re gorgeous and hard to resist.
“I’m appreciative of people coming up to me and asking questions but at an appropriate time,” Justin says.
“Not while I’m crossing a major road, which would distract Yarrin and put both of us in a dangerous position.”
Another crucial thing to remember is to keep pet dogs under control when they’re around a guide dog.
“If a guide dog is attacked, it can lead to the early retirement of the dog,” Jo says.
“It’s heartbreaking, they cost $35,000 to train and then to have it prematurely retire. It’s also a very traumatic experience for the handler.”
And while Jo and Justin are breaking down misconceptions of guide dogs, they also want to point out some about sight loss.
“A lot of people are surprised that a lot of [blind] people still have some functional vision,” Jo says.
In fact, according to the research from Guide Dogs NSW/ACT 81 per cent of people in the ACT believe a blind person is someone who cannot see anything at all, even though many suffering vision loss are able to see various shapes, lights and shadows.
And, 28 per cent of ACT residents believe those who are blind have superior hearing.
“You become quite efficient at using your hearing, but I wouldn’t say I’ve developed supersonic hearing,” Jo says.