Travelling with a guide dog

Person on Tube platform seating with guide dog

Karishma Shah, who is visually impaired, works for Guide Dogs and is a daily commuter of Londonโ€™s transport network with the assistance of her guide dog, Hermes. ๐Ÿพ

Karishma gives us a brief insight into her life. She tells us how Hermes has helped her travel independently, the importance of an accessible transport network, and gives us a few tips when travelling with/alongside someone who is visually impaired and has a guide dog.

I have the gift of life

‘God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.‘ โ€“ Voltaire

This saying cannot be more true for me. I grew up in Kenya with a visual impairment, which meant that there were things in my life that I was denied from doing.

Growing up in Kenya with a visual impairment meant relying on family and friends to get around. The idea of travelling on my own and doing the things I wanted to was not even an option and thus not worth striving for. This has led me to be zealous for life, with a passion for creating a lifestyle worth living and a lust for everyday life.

However, life works in funny ways and if you truly believe in something then the universe will find a way to make it happen. I had the privilege of leaving Kenya and moving to London, where the transport network is so much more accessible than what I was used to. I started believing that visually impaired people can move around and aspire to do day-to-day activities.

With a great Hermes guide dog, comes great responsibility

A big part of being able to travel independently is not just having an accessible transport network but having a community approach to disability. This approach enabled me to access the right services at the right time and in March 2022 I was matched with my first Guide Dog, Hermes.

Hermes and I work in a partnership, where I decide where I want to go, what train/bus we are getting on and what streets we are taking. Hermes then helps me manoeuvre around obstacles on the streets, train stations, shops etc โ€“ and yes, Iโ€™m talking about people too! Who in the eyes of Hermes are obstacles and he needs to manoeuvre around them. Hermes keeps me safe by stopping me from bumping into things. This includes objects in motion such as traffic and stopping at the edge of a train platform.

With a great Hermes comes great responsibility! Not just on my part but some of the things other passengers can do to make sure that my journey matters and that I can travel to my destination. Without peopleโ€™s cooperation and understanding, I wouldnโ€™t be able to get to where I need to be. So, I wanted to write about the things that have helped make travel a pleasant part of my everyday life.

A few friendly dos and donโ€™ts when travelling and interacting with people with a guide dog

Be patient, give space and time

Person walking off escalator with guide dog

Although Hermes is escalator trained, it is an incredibly difficult task for dogs to do. One of the things I appreciate from other passengers is allowing us the space and time needed on escalators. This means not pushing past or giving me some of their grump for holding them up (I have my own grumps to deal with too you know!).

Priority seats and offering your seat to someone who may need it more than you

Person sat on a busy Tube carriage with guide dog

One of the other key things that makes a difference is when people get up from the priority seats. This is really important because firstly, I cannot see if any seats are empty, and secondly even if there are, I need space for my dog and me, so the priority seats are the best for this. My ask to you is that when you see someone with a guide dog, please offer them your seat. Also be mindful that their dog needs space too.

Don’t distract or approach a working guide dog

Person stood next to a Tube on the platform with guide dog

Now, I know the rule is to not distract a working Guide Dog and this is generally true. However, I always welcome people who come over and ask if I do need help. This is really supportive and I usually end up saying yes. Also, sometimes individuals ask if they can say ‘hi’ to my dog. Iโ€™m normally fine with that if its appropriate for me and Hermes. However, my advice is do not engage with a dog without asking the owner first. This can be extremely dangerous, especially if they are guiding somebody.

On the (very) rare occasion where I am not in the best of moods and not up for a chat, please do leave me alone – Iโ€™m not nice when Iโ€™m grumpy! I know itโ€™s exciting to see a dog, but sometimes the right thing to do is to leave me alone and let the dog get on with his work. Unless youโ€™re moving to offer your seat or being proactive in helping in a difficult situation, of course.

Make yourself aware of others

Person walking into train station with guide dog

Hermes is a pretty fast walker and has to make decisions relatively quickly to avoid me bumping into obstacles. So, if you see us together on the network, please move out of the way or risk getting bumped into!

Closing thoughts

Everything in life starts with being able to step out your front door and having the freedom to be mobile and travel. I am able to live the life I chose and work in the sight-loss sector helping others like me. However, this would not have been possible without technology, an accessible transport network, and individuals doing the right thing.

I am able to give back because I have received a tremendous amount of compassion that is empowering and enabled me to contribute to society. I hope that if you are not affected by sight loss that you can extend your compassion. ‘A kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal’. Quote by Steve Maraboli.

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