TOKYO — Visually impaired people in Japan face having their guide dogs banned from entering some vital facilities, including coronavirus vaccination locations.
A 2021 fiscal year investigation by the Japan Guide Dog Association (JGDA) revealed a considerable number of cases where dogs had been refused entry to medical facilities due to erroneous hygiene issues. Many guide dog owners have become increasingly isolated due to fears of inconveniencing others amid the pandemic. Visually impaired people also described what people can do when they encounter someone with a guide dog.
In June 2021, Aiko Umezawa, a 67-year-old resident of Aomori Prefecture, went to a community center with her 4-year-old golden retriever, Aruta, to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. The day before, she had gone to the local government to ask to be vaccinated with her guide dog. A city official told her that they would inform the doctor of the vaccination site, and she had no concerns.
However, while waiting for his turn after checking in at reception, a site employee told him that “guide dogs cannot enter the vaccination area”. Although Umezawa told staff that she had contacted the authorities in advance, she was not allowed to bring her guide dog and was instead led by hand into the vaccination area by a member of the staff.
Umezawa said that before the incident, her dog had never been refused entry to hospitals or restaurants. She suspects the change was caused by heightened hygiene awareness due to the pandemic. When the JGDA asked the local government what had happened, it was found that the doctor at the vaccination site had ordered the dog to be kept away from the vaccination area “for hygienic reasons. “.
Japan’s service dog law turns 20 in May this year. The law obliges public and medical institutions as well as restaurants to allow the entry of assistance dogs, including guide dogs. The Department of Welfare has issued a notice saying that in principle hospitals should allow dogs to accompany their users in all areas accessible to general visitors and people visiting patients.
A JGDA representative explained to local authorities that denying Aruta access to the vaccination site could violate the law and that Umezawa was fulfilling his obligation to keep the dog clean by brushing him daily. Umezawa was able to get his second COVID-19 vaccine with Aruta by his side.
According to the JGDA, there were 861 guide dogs on duty across Japan as of March 2021. Between April 1, 2021 and March 20, 2022, the association handled 37 cases where people were not allowed to enter facilities with their guide dogs. Of these, 13 were in medical facilities, while nine were in restaurants and six in accommodation facilities. It was the first time since the survey began in 2005 that medical institutions were the largest group.
Some of these institutions told guide dog users that they had no procedures or equipment for handling animals and asked users to seek treatment elsewhere. Others were refused entry due to the misguided view that “there is a high risk of dogs bringing coronavirus on their dirty paws”.
The number of guide dog refusals has halved during the pandemic as many people choose to stay. However, 35% of 215 respondents to a year-long JGDA survey of guide dog users in 2021 said they had been refused entry to places with their animals. When establishments were asked why, 41% said they were unaware of the law, 24% said they had misunderstood how to accept guide dogs, and 19% cited a lack of employee education.
The survey also asked guide dog users about their concerns and difficulties when out on trips, allowing for multiple responses. “It’s hard to maintain social distancing” was the top answer, submitted by 42% of respondents, while 19% said it was difficult to ask for help, including asking people to walk them through. hand. The results suggest that some guide dog users are reluctant to reach out to people around them. However, many said they started being approached more frequently after the Paralympic Games in Tokyo last year.
A JGDA representative commented, “Persons with low vision do not have to face restrictions on social activities because they are accompanied by a guide dog,” adding that it is helpful to ask guide dog users s they need help if they seem to have problems.
(Japanese original by Seiho Akimaru, Tokyo City News Department)