The March main meeting of Ballymoney U3A had a talk from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in Northern Ireland.
The two speakers were Lesley Macaulay and a young blind lady called Tory with her dog Rushi. Lesley told members how the charity was organised, how clients were chosen, clients and dogs selected and trained. There is presently no age limit for clients some of who are now under 16 and over 75. Also recipients of dogs do not have to be totally blind but may be partially sighted and not necessarily registered blind.
Information about fund raising includes a scheme for individuals called ‘Sponsor a Puppy’. There are opportunities for volunteering, working with the dogs, fundraising, donating time in Guide Dog Week (October) or helping a person with sight loss to get out and about. Dogalogue is a catalogue with cards, presents and treats for you and your pet. Friends of Guide Dogs is a community of people with sight loss who receive lots of benefits as well as opportunities to give feedback through an online forum and focus groups.
One guide dog gift is called ‘Name a Puppy’. It involves naming and meeting your sponsored named puppy, with updates and photographs during their puppy walking and training. It costs over £5,000 to breed and puppy walk each guide dog, and the lifetime cost is nearly £50,000. The Guide Dog Service transforms the life of about 4,500 blind and partially sighted people every year. It receives no government funding.
There are about 50,000 people in Northern Ireland who are severely blind or partially sighted. About 5,000 never leave their homes or in some cases even their bedroom, although not everyone is suitable for a guide dog just as not every dog is suitable for training.
Tory explained about the training she received, learning how to walk with a dog and how pleased she was to pass the training herself. Her dog Ushi has been with her now for six years and is eight years old. When he came into the Courthouse Ushi knew immediately that there was another dog there in the audience. It was another assistance dog. After the meeting they stood nose to nose and checked each other out!
Tory and Ushi came to Ballymoney unaccompanied on the train and was met at the station. Tory said that the NI Railways staff were always very helpful if they knew she was travelling. Tory told us a number of anecdotes about her experiences with Ushi. Occasionally for example Ushi would try to steer Tory into shops that he liked best such as the pet shop. If you see a blind person with a dog who appears to be in difficulty, Tory advised that by all means ask if we can help but not to grab at the reins and especially not the white steering handle. Members were all grateful to Tory, Ushi and Lesley for an interesting and informative talk. Rev. Frances Bach gave a vote of thanks.