As an MD survivor, I can relate to Singaporean assistance dog users

Being rare often results in a lack of understanding, this columnist explains

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by Shalom Lim |

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On the evening of March 8, I was mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed when I stumbled upon a public post from Singaporean Paralympic swimmer Sophie Soon, who uses a guide dog for help with her visual impairment.

In the post, which has now been deleted, Soon expressed grievances with a local halal-certified cafe, claiming that staff had denied her and her mother access to the premises because of her guide dog.

The post was accompanied by a video in which a staff member was speaking on the phone, presumably with her supervisor, and asking Soon and her mother to wait outside the premises. According to The Straits Times, Soon’s mother asked the staff member why they were being discriminated against, as guide dogs are legally allowed inside restaurants by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore and the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment.

Soon then questioned what would happen if she posted the video on social media, and the woman in the clip responded, “Police report.”

As Mothership reported, the caption of Soon’s post “noted that the cafe eventually allowed them to stay on the condition that ‘(her) dog is leashed, not fed, and if a customer does not complain about (her) dog.'”

The following day, the cafe issued a statement on Instagram in response to the incident.

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Soon’s post resulted in a torrent of negative feedback from netizens who didn’t agree with the way she handled the situation. On March 12, Soon made a public apology on TikTok, saying, “It was a poor move and poor judgment on my part for thinking that this is the way to resolve discrimination issues instead of trying to bring light to this in a more positive manner.”

To me, it felt like the matter had been brought to an abrupt close. I was left with more doubts and questions than answers.

If guide dog handlers still cannot freely access public places, even with supportive legislation, what can I expect as someone who aspires to have a mobility assistance dog? Is there a place for us, the rarest of the rare, in Singapore?

Why I advocate for assistance dogs in Singapore

As a muscular dystrophy (MD) survivor, I believe I have several things in common with guide dog users.

First, most Singaporeans I’ve encountered aren’t familiar with assistance dogs or MD. Second, we’re both minorities on our island nation. While it’s estimated that around 500 people in Singapore have the major forms of MD, only eight guide dogs were in Singapore as of December 2020. We’re both invisible and marginalized groups in a country that, with a population of less than 6 million, is already a tiny dot on the world map.

As I grew up in the late ’90s and early ’00s, awareness of my MD and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder was practically nonexistent. It’s always been an uphill struggle to find adequate support and resources, despite being diagnosed with Duchenne MD at a much earlier age than most of my contemporaries. I’m second only to my late brother, Isaac, whose MD was discovered at birth.

Swimming against the tide became unbearable after Isaac died in 2019 — until I learned, through my dissertation research, about K9Assistance, a charity founded in April 2020 to promote the acceptance and use of assistance dogs for people with disabilities in Singapore. The charity’s founding chairperson, Cassandra Chiu, is the first woman to have a guide dog trained and designated to work in Singapore, and I’d been following her on social media in earnest since 2013. Chiu has shared that she and her guide dog have been shouted at and turned away by various stores and restaurants.

For reasons I’m still learning today, I felt an instant connection with Chiu due to the discrimination she’s faced.

For instance, when I was in high school, the education system rejected my neurologist’s memo requesting my exemption from the national science practical exams. Even though my severe mobility impairments couldn’t have been more apparent, officials insisted I undergo an arduous, three-hour occupational therapy assessment to prove my disability, which cost my family upward of SGD$3,000. My exemption application was approved at the 11th hour, much to our relief, but the ordeal put my parents and me through months of unnecessary distress.

Assistance dog users are just as oppressed as Duchenne survivors in Singapore, if not more. They’re frequently denied access from public establishments, despite having the right to be there. While my reality may not be as complex as theirs, I’ve had similarly distressing run-ins and unpleasant encounters with people who don’t understand disability.

This treatment is why I’m a muscular dystrophy advocate and an assistance dog champion.

Note: Muscular Dystrophy News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Muscular Dystrophy News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to muscular dystrophy.


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