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Guide Dogs

Guide Dogging Through the Past 20 Years

Editor's Note: Devon Wilkins is a member of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians now living in Peterborough, Ontario. She is also President of Guide Dog Users of Canada.

Until the early 1980s, virtually every guide dog that walked the streets of Canada was American born. Then, almost simultaneously, three centres were established here: Fondation Mira in Sainte-Madeleine near Montreal, Quebec (1981); The Lions Foundation of Canada in Oakville, Ontario (1983); and Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind in Manotick near Ottawa, Ontario (1984). In the early 1990s, both British Columbia Guide Dog Services, and a school in Edmonton, Alberta, which has undergone several name changes, were also founded.

Shortly after guide dog schools began appearing in Canada, the Canadian Association of Guide Dog Users (CAGDU) was incorporated. But when Mary Spice, its first and only President, passed away, the consumer group slipped into obscurity.

When the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) was founded in 1992, guide dog users finally had somewhere to turn for assistance with individual advocacy. In 1997, Richard Marion, then AEBC 2nd Vice President, took a Calgary, Alberta, taxi company to court for refusing access to his guide dog. There was also attorney Yvonne Peters, who took the Government of Saskatchewan all the way to the Supreme Court to gain public access for people partnered with guide dogs. AEBC even lent support to the American Council of the Blind’s lawsuit against the State of Hawaii, seeking a relaxation of its quarantine rules for guide dogs.

In August of 1999, Guide Dog Users of Canada (GDUC) rose like a phoenix out of CAGDU’s ashes. In the early 2000s, AEBC and GDUC worked with blind individuals and blindness organizations from around the world to pressure the British government to relax its quarantine restrictions for people partnered with guide, hearing and service dogs.

As the current President of GDUC, and a member of AEBC, I’m proud to say that Since GDUC’s inception, we’ve always been able to count on AEBC whenever push comes to shove. After all, we have one common goal--the enhancement of rights for Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted.

Blind Student Checks Tech for College's Accessibility

Barrie--Georgian College student Matthew Campbell identifies--and removes--barriers many can't see. That's because he's blind.

A graduate of the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford, the 22-year-old Parry Sound man is now enrolled in Georgian's computer systems technician program. In addition to his studies, he's completing his first co-op placement as an accessibility specialist in the information technology department.

He chose Georgian because the college was already more accessible than others--but that's only encouraging him to make it even more so.

"Georgian seemed to have a lot of information on its website about helping students with disabilities and a lot of colleges didn't," he said. "I had a hard time finding a computer technician program. I found 'help desk support', and I don't want to do that. I want to be the guy who runs around the building fixing things."

Like others in the I.T. (information technology) business, Campbell loves technology and exploring how various devices, programs and applications can work together. He has both an Apple Mac laptop and a Windows notebook--and is awaiting the arrival of an iPhone.

His focus as an I.T. co-op student has been the same website that attracted him to Georgian in the first place.

"I'd like to see the college move a little quicker away from Adobe's flash technology, which is being used to display video on a web page. Adobe has a very sad attitude when it comes to accessibility, especially for the Mac user," he said. "Flash is a nightmare to navigate and work with using a screen-reading program." Screen reading is built into Apple computers, he noted, while on Windows-based systems the accessibility tool must be purchased separately.

He has suggested the college give blind students a tour by adding better audio descriptions of the campus, rather than relying so heavily on the camera. "If someone developed a website with descriptive labels for images, we could get an idea of what the image is showing," he said, adding that in many cases--from email links to websites--any text on the page, rather than an icon, would give information to the visually impaired.

Graduating from the Macdonald School, Campbell has more experience with other adaptive technologies, and is working to make the college's website work with those specialized devices as well.

He's also excited by the possibilities of mainstream technology--and making it even more useful for those with disabilities. Applications for the iPhone abound (not to mention the phone has a screen-reading "voice"), and he's looking to explore how to make them work with specialized programs and devices. "I'd like to get into that, too," he said. "There are lots of possibilities.

His supervisor, web usability analyst Monika Bernolak, said that experience is a valuable asset. "We have all kinds of reports and he's given us numerous suggestions. We're listening to him, to learn and improve our pages accordingly," she said. "He tests projects for us before they go live and lets us know how we can improve. It's very important in light of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which Georgian College is strongly committed to."

Made law in 2005, the AODA sets out a series of targets to break down barriers: customer service, the built environment, employment, communication and transportation. Municipalities and public agencies must, by January, offer good customer service to all--regardless of ability or disability. Stores and others in the business of customer service have until January 2012.

Just after that, information and communication must be accessible by 2013 in the private sector. All other compliance dates have yet to be determined. The goal of the AODA is to make the province totally accessible by 2025.

"(More) companies are thinking about accessibility and how to build it into mainstream products. It's pretty sad a lot of other (technology companies) are not following Apple and making it accessible," Campbell said. "(People with disabilities) may be a minority, but we do make up market share."

As part of his co-op placement, Campbell also has an accessibility blog, at

In September, Campbell returns to his in-class studies. One thing he will depend on isn't technical at all--but critically important in helping him make his way around: his guide dog Lillibelle.

"You'd be surprised at how many people have dogs," he said, adding he asks people not to pat the black lab while she is working. "Ask, don't assume, you can (pat the dog). Petting a dog that's working is unwise, potentially dangerous," he said, adding he's fortunate he's had no close calls due to Lillibelle being distracted from her duties.

In January, in his next co-op placement, he may be back focusing on accessibility at Georgian. At least Bernolak hopes so. "He's been a great asset," she said.

Reprinted from The Barrie Advance,, Ontario, August 25, 2010.

Clowning Around With Marco

Editor's Note: Ms. Bennett is an AEBC member living in Brampton, Ontario and Associate Editor of the CBM.

Marc Proulx, also known as Marco the Clown, is on a mission to create smiles--at everything from birthday parties and weddings to fundraisers and seasonal celebrations. For the past ten years, the Brantford, Ontario, resident has been juggling, joking, yodeling, singing, dancing, cartwheeling and balloon-making his way into people's hearts. He also performs ventriloquism, with such characters as Sesame Street's Grover and Bruno, a chocolate Labrador of his own making. His guide dog, Felix, is also in on the act. While Marco wears a painted face, size 24 shoes, and a navy blue clown suit with multi-coloured patches, his four-legged companion sports a piece of multi-coloured denim on his back to match the hue of balloons. When Felix is not sleeping, he barks on cue during songs and jokes, and even jumps up into the air to catch treats. All to make someone's day!

Proulx first considered working as a clown in his adolescence after he became blind. Not only did he know someone who worked as a clown and who encouraged him, but his personality was also well suited to the job. Clowning served a crucial purpose. "It was my way of dealing with losing my sight," Proulx says, "instead of drugs or alcohol. Plus, I have a lot of energy and love joking around." Since he had difficulty finding other employment, Proulx joined Brant Clown Alley (BCA), a group of entertainers whose aim is to develop and improve members' skills through workshops and practical experience. Through BCA and similar outfits in Toronto and Hamilton, he learned to make animals, Spiderman, a Harley-Davidson and a ballerina out of balloons, usually by following each step hand over hand. To get to events, he either car-pools with other clowns or gets a ride from family/friends. While he typically works alone, it's not unusual for other clowns to join him at weddings or Canada Day celebrations. Summer is the busiest time of year, with up to 14 gigs a month in July and August; in wintertime, there might be two per month.

Apart from entertaining, Marco the Clown uses his gigs to educate others about blindness. He takes a sign with him to public events that reads: “I'm Marco the Clown / Here to entertain / And this is my guide dog / Felix is his name / I'm visually impaired / I do not see / So please let me know / If you need a balloon from me / I might juggle or jump / Or I may sing a song / I'll create with balloons / And it won't take me long!” Since he can’t see if children are butting into line for balloons, for example, this is one way to indicate to parents to keep their kids in check. Sometimes he also asks for assistance. Marco has also adapted the birthday party game Pin the Tail on the Donkey to Pin the Tail on the Black Lab--Felix!

For Proulx, it’s all about providing pleasure. “When I first got into clowning, I took my ventriloquism dummy Bruno to a restaurant, where he flirted unashamedly with the waitress. It’s fortunate I had good orientation to the restaurant, because before long we were going to different tables. We had the whole place in stitches.” Clowning is sometimes also one of the hardest things he’s done. “At one summer event, a father brought his seriously ill three-year-old son to me,” he recalls. “I lifted him up in my arms and began singing to him. When I returned the boy to his father, the Dad was weeping, because it was one of the few times he had seen his child smile.” Proulx pauses here before continuing, “Three weeks later, I got a call inviting me to the little boy’s funeral, where I attached a helium balloon to his casket.”

Marco the Clown is always striving to improve his skills, such as ballooning and juggling. He’s forever looking for new jokes and tricks, and has just started getting up on stilts. While the self-employed entertainer would like to be financially independent and attend a Texas college to study “the psychology of clowning”, his work is currently only part-time and he continues to receive a disability pension. Still, he’s thinking big. When I asked him about his goals for the future, his immediate response was “to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.” When I asked what that record might be, he quipped, “Stiltwalking or unicycling, of course!”

Did I mention that Marc Proulx is also a father, former Big Brother and star athlete? Perhaps it’s only natural then that he got into clowning--something that thrills children and requires great physical agility. He’s also an accessibility advocate in Brantford. Proulx believes that you have to reach for the stars in order to actually get one. “The impossible is only the untried,” he says. Whatever the future holds for him, it will no doubt be eventful.

For more information about Marc Proulx, call 519-304-2277 or email:

Introducing Mike Yale

Editor's Note: Editor’s Note: Since this article, AEBC members Mike Yale and his partner Marcia have moved back to Huntsville, Ontario.

Mike Yale has dedicated his life to making things better for marginalized people. "I'm very political," he says. "If I have a defect, it's that I take things too seriously. I probably don't laugh as much as I ought."

Born in Hollywood, California, Yale was blinded in an explosion at age five. When he returned home after a year and 30 surgeries, the doctor told Yale's mother to encourage independence. "He said to let me make mistakes, even if I got hurt, and she did," he says. "My mother was a phenomenal woman."

In one of the first integrated school programs for blind children, Yale learned side by side with sighted classmates, excelling as a public speaker and member of the debating society. He also played classical piano before audiences of up to 5,000 people. In his teen years, his interest shifted from Beethoven to rock 'n’ roll, and today he has a 3,000-record collection to attest to his continuing love of music.

Yale spent the early 1960s at Berkley, majoring in journalism with minors in political science, history and comparative literature. He also became involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements--and found true friendship. "The hippies were the first group who accepted me for who I was despite my blindness and the scars on my face," he says. "I consider myself a hippy to this day."

After college, Yale travelled in Russia and Europe, then decided to leave the United States permanently to protest against the Vietnam War. He moved to Toronto and began studying law at Osgoode Hall. Although he decided not to write the bar exam, Yale says he's used those studies in many ways.

Over the next 20 years, Yale had many different jobs ranging from dairy and pig farmer to radio show host to investigator for provincial and federal human rights commissions. He also wrote a book called No Dogs Allowed about his European travels. The sequel, Golden Reflections, was recently accepted by a small Toronto publisher.

In 1986, Yale and his then-partner bought the Huntsville Pet Shop and ran it for about three years. Ever since, work has been sporadic and typically required a commute to Toronto, like his five years at the provincial information and privacy commission.

"It's tough to get work," he says, noting that the unemployment rate among blind people is 75 percent.

Yale has been very involved in this community. He was Chair of the Accessibility Advisory Committee, served on the library board, and participated in the Visually Impaired Peer Support Group.

"Blindness is a total pain in the butt, but it's not that bad," he says. "Life doesn't end. There's always a way to accommodate your disability."

Since his ex-wife, Doreen, returned to England a year ago, Yale has been living alone with his guide dog, Narella. However, that changed earlier this week when he moved to Toronto to be with the new love of his life. "Marcia brings me such joy," he says.

There's another reason for Yale's move: It will make it easier to continue his work as Co-Chair of the Ontario Disability Support Program Action Coalition. "We are trying to get McGuinty's government to live up to the promise he made to develop a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy," he says.

Yale explains that the provincial disability pension is less than $1,000 a month. "Nobody can live on that," he says. "Even if they raised it to $1,460 a month, it would only put recipients at the poverty line. There's so much wealth in this country, there's got to be a way to make sure everyone has enough to live reasonably."

After 22 years, Yale will miss Huntsville. "I know everyone here and have a whole network of friends," he says.

And he has a message for those staying behind: "Protect the lovely, quaint character of this town. Don't turn it into just another non-descript place on the highway, and don't let the politicians decide everything. Take an interest, get involved and protect what you've got."

Reprinted from the Huntsville Forester, August 27, 2008:

HRM Opens Service Dog Exercise Facility

The Service Dogs of Halifax now have a place to safely exercise in a unique, accessible off-leash dog run at the corner of Rainnie Drive and Cogswell Street, adjacent to Centennial Pool.

"HRM (Halifax Regional Municipality) has responded to a request for a designated exercise area for service dogs that is safe for the dogs and accessible to their handlers," said Mayor Peter Kelly. "Preliminary research leads us to believe that this may be one of the first dog runs in North America designed and designated specifically for use by service dogs."

An estimated 75-80 registered, professionally- trained service dogs provide assistance to the disabled in the Halifax Regional Municipality. They include guide dogs for the blind, “hearing” dogs for the deaf (which alert to bells, knocking and alarms), seizure alert dogs for people with epilepsy, and “special skills” dogs trained to perform specific tasks for a person according to their disability or medical condition.

While there are other types of working animals in common use, such as dogs for drug, arson and explosive detection by RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and police, or for Search and Rescue or guarding work, those dogs have access to other venues for exercise. The new Service Dog Exercise Facility offers a centrally located, fenced area where service dogs can safely be off-leash and still remain close to their handlers.

"It is important that hard-working service dogs get a chance to exercise and have some off-leash down time, like any other dog. The creation of this small exercise facility will provide a safe place for me to take my guide dog without the worry of losing track of her, like I might in a big park. It's also easy to get here by bus," said Helen McFadyen, chair of HRM's Advisory Committee for Persons with Disabilities.

The Service Dog Exercise Run will be open year-round, daily from dawn to dusk.

Reprinted from the City of Halifax’s website,, July 27, 2009.

Right to Use Service Dogs Often Violated

Who kept the dogs out? Taxis. Government offices. Restaurants. A lot of people who should know better.

By law, service dogs trained to help people with disabilities are allowed into public places from which pets are banned. Too often, however, people who use these four-legged helpers find themselves at risk because their dogs are shut out. If Toronto really wants to call itself a world-class city, that has to change.

Kaye Leslie, Scotiabank's manager of workplace diversity, says she and her dog Kirk, a graduate of the Seeing Eye organization, have been left in cold, dark locations by cab drivers who drove away or refused to stop when they saw Kirk. One time, Leslie says, she was actually getting into a cab when it took off, leaving "the door swinging against us."

Leslie is among many who have long complained to cab companies and other businesses that deny working dogs entrance. They've done their best to raise awareness and increase understanding. But despite disability rights being part of standard training for a cab licence, she says the problem not only persists, it seems to be getting worse.

When high school student Caroline Cook went to renew her passport so she could train with Ontario's kayak racing team in Florida, she was stopped short.

At 16, Cook is already a world contender in kayak sprints and dragon boat races. The fact that she is hard of hearing and uses a service dog to alert her to sounds never put a dint in her stroke--until she approached Toronto's Victoria St. passport office last month with her dog, Swiss, and her mother, Kathy.

The security guard told them only those who are blind are entitled to bring in service dogs. Didn't matter that Swiss was wearing the Dog Guides of Canada jacket or that Caroline offered official ID. The two of them were forced to wait outside while Kathy stood in line.

That afternoon, Ontario Human Rights Code in hand, Caroline's father Rob complained to the office manager. The Cooks got a formal letter of apology. But "that doesn't change what happened," says Caroline, who has also been turned away from restaurants that "seemed to be just totally ignorant."

She encourages others who use service dogs to fight for their rights.

"Swiss has made a huge difference in my life," she says. "Most of all, she makes me feel safer at night...because I can't hear the smoke alarm with my hearing aids out."

It's time to get tough with those who refuse to acknowledge the crucial role service dogs play.

What can be done?

When it comes to cabs, many companies point out that drivers who are Muslim do not want contact with dogs because Islamic tradition sees them as unclean. But critics argue that carrying dogs comes with the job description for taxi drivers.

Jim Kutsch, president of the Seeing Eye organization, advises everyone who phones for a cab to ask the dispatcher for the driver's number so it can be reported with any complaint.

He also urges the public to help identify cabs that refuse to carry service dogs.

"Many cases never get anywhere because, of course, someone who is blind cannot see a licence plate," he says.

Those who think this issue is going nowhere would do well to heed how the Metropolitan Airport Commission of Minneapolis deals with drivers who refuse dogs.

"The first time it happens, their licence is suspended for three months," says a spokesperson. "The second time, they lose their licence altogether.

"This has always been the case for service dogs; last year, we extended it to all dogs."

Reprinted from the Toronto Star, February 9, 2008, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.

Maps, Menus, and More Myths About Guide Dogs

Editor's Note: Devon Wilkins is from Collingwood, Ontario. She is Canadian Vice-President of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, a director at large of Guide Dog Users of Canada, and founder and editor of The Harness, a magazine for people who use assistance dogs. She also serves as Director at Large for the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians.

A few years ago, at the Montreal Comedy Festival, an individual was planted on one of the city streets with a guide dog and a map. In true Candid Camera fashion, the individual asked passers-by to outline the route he should take in order to reach a particular location. Only too willing to help, a number of people actually crouched down, map in hand, and showed the dog the route to take.

Then, there's the lady in Victoria who eventually lost her patience when a restauranteur wouldn't take a few minutes to go over the menu with her.

"Do you suppose my guide dog is going to read it to me?" the customer asked sarcastically.

"Well, yes," the surprised restauranteur stammered. "I really did think he would."

These are two particularly glaring misconceptions about guide dogs, but there are many others that are much more common.

"How does your dog know where you want to go?" children frequently ask when Oak and I visit their classrooms, most often during White Cane Week.

I answer that question with one of my own.

"Does your parents' car know where to take you?"

I go on to explain that like someone who gets behind the steering wheel, I need to know the streets to cross in order to reach a specific destination.

Speaking of intersections, contrary to popular belief, guide dogs can't tell when the light is green. The blind handler needs to determine when it's safe to cross by listening to the direction of the traffic. But if a handler, totally unaware of the presence of a hybrid car making its way into the intersection, gives the "forward" command, the guide dog is trained in what is called intelligent disobedience. The handler needs to practice this traffic technique often to keep the guide dog on its toes.

Another important fact for the public to remember is that guide dogs are dogs first. They aren't robots that are immune to distraction, any more than anyone else is. Given the choice, who of us wouldn't want to play rather than work? But in this particular instance, a moment of inattention on the part of the guide dog could have fatal consequences for both dog and human partners.

That's why it's vital that when a dog is wearing its harness, members of the public should refrain from calling, playing with, feeding, or otherwise distracting it. I tell children that the harness is the dog's uniform. You wouldn't bother a doctor who was stitching someone up, or a police officer in the midst of handcuffing a suspect. In the same way, you shouldn't distract a dog that is in harness.

That doesn't mean that you can't stop to pass the time of day with the human member of the team. You might even be able to have a word with the dog if the human partner is agreeable, but always ask first.

A misconception that has no doubt cost the five training programs across the country plenty of fundraising dollars is that guide dogs are trained by the CNIB (formerly known as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind). Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that for many years, CNIB tried to discourage clients from applying to guide dog training centres. Now, however, they have realized that guide dogs are here to stay, and they allow their orientation and mobility instructors to prepare people for their month at the training centre, and to assist in dealing with problems that might arise during the course of the relationship between guide dog and handler.

The mention of training programs reminds me to remind you that not all guide dogs are Seeing Eye dogs. The Seeing Eye is only one training centre, albeit the first in North America, which is located in Morristown, New Jersey. There are five training programs here in Canada, and several in the States.

If you want to know whether a guide dog would be suitable for you or your loved one, or if you have a question that you've always wanted to ask, don't hesitate to contact the national office of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians to ask for a brochure that has recently been written on the subject. Alternatively, visit the website of Guide Dog Users of Canada at:

Cab Driver Ill Informed For Banning Guide Dog

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Muslim News, United Kingdom, November 24, 2006:

A senior Muslim scholar has said mini-cab driver Abdul Rasheed Majekodunmi, who refused to allow a guide dog in his car because it would breach Islamic law, was "ill-informed" about Islam.

Last month, Majekodunmi was fined 200 pounds and told to pay 1,200 for costs under the Disability Discrimination Act for refusing to carry out the booking.

He picked up Jane Vernon, a legal officer at the RNIB (Royal National Institute of the Blind), in west London. She later said the incident in October 2005 made her feel like "a second-class citizen."

Chair of the inter faith relations committee of the Muslim Council of Britain Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra said the driver had been ill-informed about Islamic law that says Muslims should wash before praying if they come into contact with dog saliva, which is considered unclean and impure.

Shaykh Mogra told The Muslim News, "Muslim law lays down general laws, but there are circumstances where allowances have to be made."

A Disability Rights Commission spokeswoman said the Muslim Shariah Council confirmed four years ago that assistance dogs can accompany disabled people into restaurants or taxis managed or driven by Muslims.

But she said it would be "dangerously wrong" to suggest discrimination was "the preserve of a particular group" as "misconception and downright ignorance of the law is rife."

From Dark to Light

Editor's Note: Sue Neveu-Bhatti lives in Windsor, Ontario, with her husband and two daughters. Here, she reflects on how much her previous guide dog meant to her.

For years I walked in darkness

with a cane as my guide;

Today I walk in sunlight

with Cindy at my side.

I used to walk in semi-darkness,

each step I took with fear;

Today I walk in semi-light

now that I have Cindy near.

For years I walked alone,

I thought it would never end;

Now I have Cindy--

Thank god she is my friend.

From Cane to Canine

Editor's Note: Lynn Chu lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

I received my first guide dog one year ago, and I am so glad. I had used a white cane since age 15 when I started losing my sight. I'm now 39 and am enjoying the benefits and responsibilities of having a guide dog, though there are additional considerations to keep in mind.

When I use a cane, I need to know which cane techniques to employ in which situations. I have to know when it is safe to cross busy roads or get a sighted person to help.

I have to know where I am going and how to get there, such as which bus to take to a particular restaurant. When using a guide dog, I still need to make these kinds of decisions.

But a guide dog is a living being with needs. When my dog does something good, it is necessary to praise her. We wake up at six o'clock in the morning and go to bed at ten in the evening. I feed her twice a day and relieve her five times daily. Having a guide dog is much like having a baby--a lot of work but rewarding.

A white cane is not the same company as a guide dog, and it doesn't always give you the same type of information. If there are individuals coming towards me or following behind, for example, my dog lets me know by barking or getting me to move to the side. Although I had to learn how to get around Victoria on my own before I could get a guide dog and there is more I have to do when using a dog than with a cane, I wanted to get a guide dog because I would feel more independent, and also more secure when alone.


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