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Guide Dogs seeks 'compassion, patience' for visually impaired during pandemic

COURTESY PHOTO: GUIDE DOGS FOR THE BLIND - Chris Benninger, CEO and president of Guide DogsSocial distancing and navigating the pandemic has been hard for everyone - but for the visually impaired and blind, COVID-19 has been doubly difficult.

That is why a local nonprofit organization dedicated to pairing individuals with guide dogs is helping shine a light on how communities can support their visually-impaired neighbors. The refrain sounding out from Guide Dogs for the Blind is "patience and communication."

"A guide dog provides the courage for someone to step out and live their life," said Chris Benninger, CEO and president of Guide Dogs. "We don't want to lose that."

Guide dogs aren't being trained to stay away from others, in fact that is antithetical to one of their greatest strengths.

"Guide dogs help the visually impaired remain connected to the community, a social bridge," Benninger said. "We don't want to change our training for something that won't be needed in a few years."

But that has led to many troubling encounters for Guide Dogs' clients.

Some have said they have been yelled at or ridiculed for not being able to socially distance, especially in businesses or on public transit. Others have faced anger for not following visual cues — marks on the grocery store floor to show where to stand in line, or signs directing customers where to go — which no dog or white cane will ever be able to pick up.

"When you are blind you can't see those cues," Benninger said. "Some clients have been afraid, and there have been some not very nice (encounters)."

The solution is easy, Benninger said. If someone who is visually impaired gets too close to you, say something.

"They want to be safe as well, so they won't be upset for gently letting them know they are too close," Benninger said.

In many ways Gresham can serve as a model for the rest of the country. Guide Dogs uses downtown and other places in the community as training grounds for clients at the Boring campus. Business owners can verbalize any posted instructions if they see someone visit with a guide dog or white cane.

"We hope people continue to be compassionate toward the visually impaired, especially during the pandemic," Benninger said. "People should understand that guide dog user doesn't want to get COVID either."

Local businesses could also explore more tactile or audio cues. Some visually impaired individuals may also appreciate being asked if they need directions or support.

"Everyone just wants to live their life and get out and about and do things," Benninger said.

Guide Dogs for the Blind, based in California with a campus in Boring, has continued to operate as an essential business throughout the pandemic. At any given time, the nonprofit organization is training approximately 4,000 dogs.

Guide Dogs does not charge clients for being paired with a dog and operates without any government dollars. Instead the group relies on donations and volunteer support. Learn more at guidedogs.com


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