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Assistance-Dog Partners Say "konnichiwa" to Japan

Editor's Note: Devon Wilkins is President of AEBC's Collingwood Chapter and serves on AEBC's national board.

In 2004, I travelled to Japan with my guide dog, Oak, to attend the October 11-13 conference of the International Association of Assistance-Dog Partners (IAADP), as the group's secretary and Canadian representative. Moto Arima, Executive Director of Japan Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, had arranged the conference not only as an opportunity for Japanese assistance-dog users to dialogue with counterparts from other countries, but also to further educate the Japanese public about the government's recent law granting hearing- and service-dog partners the same legislative protection enjoyed by guide-dog handlers. It was also hoped the event would encourage politicians to make even more sweeping changes when the law was due for review in 2005.

The conference was in Matsumoto's brand new opera house whic is located in what is known as the Alps or backbone of Japan, approximately an hour and a half from where the Winter Olympic Games were held in 1994. It is approximately five hours from Tokyo.

Apart from myself, the guide-dog contingent of the North American delegation included IAADP President, Dr. Ed Eames, and his wife, Toni, from California. Jill Esposito, an IAADP board member, and Janice Justice came from Oregon with their hearing dogs. Although British quarantine restrictions prevented his service dog (for a disability other than a vision or hearing impairment) from accompanying him, Allen Parton and his wife from England were also in attendance.

On the 10th, the day prior to the conference, we lunched with six Japanese assistance-dog partners, but we were careful to keep our dogs apart because we were under home quarantine, where visiting working dogs must be kept separate from Japanese dogs.

We spent that afternoon with 100 inquisitive school children at a community centre. Ed Eames and Latrell demonstrated the training guide dogs receive by following Moto to within a hair's breadth of the edge of the stage, and Uriah demonstrated the training that hearing dogs receive by alerting Jill to the sound of a timer. Janice's hearing dog, Cajun, earned a round of applause by singing the song that won him the runner-up prize in the Singing Animal contest sponsored several years ago by Bayer. Meanwhile, my pooch, Oak, turned upside down and snored.

Following several speeches on the 11th, delegates and their assistance dogs paraded along an eight-block route. Many Japanese people with disabilities also walked with their guide, hearing and service dogs, and townspeople joined the festivities with pet dogs. Others lined the sidewalks, and we waved as we passed and said, "Konnichiwa" good day. That evening, we made it into several newspapers and onto Japan national news.

The highlight of the 12th was Ed's speech in which he compared the independent living model, which promotes self-determination and individual choice and which is growing in popularity in North America, to the medical model that is currently in use in Japan. Apparently, disabled Japanese people seeking dogs must be evaluated by a team of medical and rehabilitation professionals to determine the tasks a dog should perform and which training program would be approved.

Later that day, we participated in a panel with Japanese assistance-dog partners--a deaf couple that worked with one hearing dog, a wheelchair user with a service dog, and two blind men with guide dogs.

There is now a law in Japan recognizing the right of a disabled person to be accompanied by an assistance dog, but there are no penalties for those public entities that still choose to deny access. Most of the audience was for education, not punishment, and Allen and Janice also felt education would do the job!

The other big discussion centred on the disabled person's responsibility to clean a hotel room of dog hair before checking out. A non-disabled member of the audience said we should be grateful that a hotel allows us to stay, and that stimulated much talk about civil rights.

"Do people without disabilities empty their ashtrays, dust off their shoes, or vacuum up their crumbs?" I asked incredulously. "If not, why would you put the extra burden on people with disabilities?"

Toni Eames got a laugh when she stated her luggage was heavy enough without having to carry a vacuum cleaner!

Some Japanese guide-dog partners said they were taught to carry a roll of tape to pick up dog hair, but we questioned how they would know where the hair was. Japanese assistance dogs in the previously mentioned parade wore human t-shirts, apparently to reduce air-borne dog hair.

As the conference drew to a close, we encouraged the Japanese assistance-dog partners to make use of the contact information they had been given so that the dialogue could continue.

When we returned to Tokyo, we spoke with the chief officer at the Ministry of Health, and other politicians, about freedom of movement and of choice. The final congressman we met with happens to be the honorary, albeit uninformed, president of the support-dog association. All appeared to be squarely in the corner of Japanese assistance-dog partners, but only time will tell whether the comments they made were actual commitments to the cause or nothing more than courteous acquiescence.

On the whole, we felt that our trip to Japan was a positive experience. There weren't any groundbreaking or earth-shaking developments, but I call to mind an old Chinese proverb that says, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step".