‘The bond between us is indescribable’: Paralympic swimmer Sophie Soon on her relationship with her guide dog
The 25-year-old reflects on the highs and lows of dealing with visual impairment, and how her guide dog Orinda has become her eyes, helping her avoid obstacles when she’s out and about. As told to CNA Women’s Sharon Salim.
I was born with an eye condition called cone rod dystrophy, a disorder that leads to the loss of cone cells in the retina. Cone cells are responsible for central and colour vision, which means I’m unable to see objects directly in front of me and I’m completely colour blind.
When I was born, my mum noticed that I had an issue with eye tracking. My parents also noticed that I wouldn’t react to things until they were brought a lot closer to me.
A big defining moment happened when I was about two years old, sitting in the front seat of the car, next to my dad. I remember we had parked the car as my mum rushed out to run some errands. My dad pointed to a cartoon on a van passing by, and I started screaming as I couldn’t see it.
And when he called out to my mum when he saw her, I screamed even more as I couldn’t see her, asking him where she was.
That’s when my parents realised something was not so right.
When I started learning to read and write in nursery, I would put my face very close to the paper, and my teachers would pull me back. They told me I was too close.
We went for my first eye-doctor appointment when I was five, and that’s when we were told that I had some sort of macular degeneration condition. The doctor couldn’t say what specific eye condition it was because they had to see the nature of the progression.
I continued seeing the doctor, and about two years later, I was diagnosed with cone rod dystrophy. We learnt that the condition is a progressive one.
My mum didn’t know how to tell me that I was eventually going to go blind, or that I was going to lose my vision as I got older. I only remember her taking me to McDonald’s and getting me a Happy Meal, and I was happy with that. I wasn’t very bothered with the diagnosis then.
FINDING OUT ABOUT GUIDE DOGS: “I WAS SO FASCINATED”
I really love dogs, and I was about 11 when I found out about guide dogs. There was a show on TV about them, and I remember watching the guide dog helping the handler up the stairs. I was partially sighted then.
I thought that was so cool. I remember trying to find all sorts of documentaries online about guide dogs. Thinking about the future, I wrote to Guide Dogs Singapore to find out about how I could get one for myself. I was 15 then.
I learnt that I could only get a guide dog when I turned 18, and that I needed to be proficient with my orientation and mobility (O&M) skills. This includes knowing where you are at that moment, using information from your surroundings, and getting to your destination independently. It also teaches you how to use mobility aids such as the white cane.
So I got very focused and worked a lot on my O&M skills because I wanted to be ready when the time finally came for me to get around with a guide dog.
DETERIORATION OF HER EYE CONDITION
From the end of 2017 to 2018, my vision started deteriorating very, very rapidly – I was walking into things that I would usually be able to avoid.
The nature of my condition is that it deteriorates at certain points, which is described as the “peaks and troughs” of cone rod dystrophy. It’s not a steady deterioration – there are times where it deteriorates faster, and there are times where it will be stable for long periods of time.
The biggest difference between using a cane and having a guide dog is that a cane helps you detect obstacles, while a guide dog avoids the obstacles for you.
This time, I seriously considered getting a guide dog. Having one would help me get to destinations safely and independently. I knew my parents were not very keen on having a dog in the house but my mum agreed, explaining that I had to be fully responsible for it.
In 2018, I called Guide Dogs Singapore and received approval to be on the waiting list to be paired with a guide dog. They were slightly apprehensive as they weren’t sure how well I was able to move around independently. The team also has to look at the recipient and the guide dog to see if they can work well together.
Thankfully, in September 2019, I got a message from Vanessa, the general manager of Guide Dogs Singapore, saying there was a match. She asked me if I was ready to receive training for three weeks in January 2020.
I was so happy. I told my coach, teammates and everyone else that I was going to get one. It was finally happening.
I started using the white cane when I was 17. While using it has been helpful in many ways, it slowed me down. I relied heavily on the cane if I was in an unfamiliar or outdoor area where the sun is shining brightly. Abnormal sensitivity to light is one of the symptoms of cone rod dystrophy.
MEETING ORINDA FOR THE FIRST TIME
Orinda, a golden retriever lab mix who was cared for by volunteer puppy raisers in Australia when she was born, arrived in Singapore in December 2019. She was two years old. It so happened that a mobility guide dog instructor named Christina was preparing Orinda for our training in January and was walking around my neighbourhood.
She asked if I was home, and if I would like to meet Orinda. And that was the first time I met my guide dog. I think a lot of people think we fell in love at first sight. It totally wasn’t that way.
Orinda was very close to Christina, and she would look at Christina for instruction and guidance. When I wanted to play with her, she would look back at Christina, as if asking her for permission.
I thought it was really sweet. And I love that she did that because I knew that over time, that would be the bond we’d have eventually.
Orinda was very small, and I think that’s the reason they matched us together as I’m also somewhat small in stature. They usually match guide dogs with their handlers according to size and walking speed.
HOW ORINDA CHANGED HER LIFE
By the third day of training in January, Christina gave the green light for Orinda to move in with us. She was very energetic, and we got along well from the start.
It was more interesting to see the way she bonded with the rest of my family, especially with my dad. One day, she just started following him everywhere. At first, he was really annoyed with it but he eventually accepted it.
Orinda is not only my eyes, but also my alarm clock. She likes to wake up the moment the sun rises, and she will stare at my bed waiting for me to wake up.
I really like that she’s able to adapt quickly. Whether we’re going to the office – I’m a marketing specialist at a car company – or heading to the gym or swim training, as long as we’re going out and having an adventure, she’s ready for it.
She turns five this November but still has the energy of a puppy.
Travelling by myself has become so much easier. The biggest difference between using a cane and having a guide dog is that a cane helps you detect obstacles, while a guide dog avoids the obstacles for you.
With the cane, I would constantly knock into everything, like a lamp post or dustbin. It was frustrating because if I walk into a dustbin, it doesn’t tell me to go away. I was constantly running into people, and they got angry with me as they didn’t realise I’m visually impaired. Oftentimes, people miss the cane and miss me.
On top of that, I’m a very fast walker but with a cane and limited vision, I had to slow down. This made me very frustrated because I know I can walk so much faster.
Orinda is also a fast walker and loves speeding through the crowd. That makes it so much easier for me, and it has become an incentive for me to go out as I know that she enjoys going out too.
She has sort of become my child. I always joke with my friends that I’m a “low-key” mother now – every time I go out, I need to prepare her poop bags, wet wipes, food, water bowls and more.
LACK OF AWARENESS FOR GUIDE DOGS IN SINGAPORE
I was unpleasantly surprised by the lack of awareness of guide dogs. They are allowed (by law) at indoor and public spaces, including restaurants, malls, buses and trains. The only two places guide dogs aren’t allowed in are surgery rooms and restaurant kitchens – both places which I don’t ever intend to go to.
The only two places guide dogs aren’t allowed in are surgery rooms and restaurant kitchens.
As a society, we could be more compassionate towards others and look out for others, regardless of their ability. We also need to be more educated on guide dog rules.
Every time I walk into a restaurant, I feel very anxious. I wish I was kidding about this but my heart rate goes up because I know there’s a good chance I have to be assertive (about my rights) if I am turned away. This happens way too often.
Sometimes, if I’m too tired to “fight”, I’ll just make do with sitting outside. But I don't think it’s right for me to give in. I really hope that more restaurants start to take this seriously – that they shouldn’t be rejecting guide dogs and their handlers.
I don’t like the idea of constantly going to the same restaurant and just going to places that accept guide dogs.
Once, I had a very nasty encounter on the bus where a man screamed at the top of his voice, telling me and Orinda to get out. Another person decided to stand up for me, and they both ended up in a screaming match.
In terms of guide dog etiquette, the public should try to minimise interaction with the guide dog, especially when it’s working. When Orinda is working, she’s trying to look out for obstacles for me, listening to my commands, and should not be distracted. So, no petting, no calling for her, making silly noises and trying to get her attention.
The bond between us is just something very indescribable. I’m sure every guide dog handler can say the same about their relationship with their dog – it’s just so special. Orinda is a very intelligent girl, which means she is able to think one step ahead of me.
The bond between us is just something very indescribable.
“DON’T BE AFRAID TO BE AFRAID”
Recently, I went to my eye doctor, and she said that my vision has deteriorated quite significantly since last year. It doesn’t really affect me that much because I know I’m surrounded by so many people that love me. They don’t really see it as a hindrance – they just see me as me.
In terms of tech and mobility skills, I am very familiar with using a cane and a guide dog. In fact, I don’t really take notice of my visual impairment as much – Orinda helps me so much that I’ve become much less reliant on my vision when I’m walking.
I know that walking out with a visual impairment has its risks, but if I’m just going to be thinking about that all day, I’m not going to do anything with my life.
A motto I live by is: Don’t be afraid to be afraid. I would much rather go out accepting the risks, but taking precautions to be safe and living life to the fullest.
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