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Guide dog bans at Japanese vaccine venues, hospitals hit visually impaired

A guide dog demonstrates waiting with a user as part of promotional activities at a medical institution in Ibaraki Prefecture on Sept. 2, 2019, in this photo provided by the Japan Guide Dog Association.

TOKYO -- Visually impaired people in Japan are facing bans on their guide dogs going into certain vital facilities, including coronavirus vaccination venues.

    A fiscal 2021 survey by the Japan Guide Dog Association (JGDA) found a considerable number of cases where the dogs had been denied entry into medical institutions due to erroneous hygiene concerns. Many guide dog owners have become increasingly isolated due to worries they are inconveniencing others amid the pandemic. Visually impaired people have also described what people can do when they encounter someone with a guide dog.

    In June 2021, 67-year-old Aomori Prefecture resident Aiko Umezawa headed to a community center with her 4-year-old golden retriever Aruta to get her coronavirus vaccine. The day before, she had visited the local government to ask about getting vaccinated in the company of her guide dog. A city official told her that they would inform the doctor at the vaccination site, and she had no worries.

    However, when waiting her turn after checking in at the front desk, a venue worker told her that "guide dogs cannot enter the vaccination area." Although Umezawa told staff that she had contacted authorities in advance, she was not allowed to bring her guide dog, and was instead led by the hand into the inoculation area by a staff member.

    Umezawa said that prior to the incident, her dog had never been denied entry into hospitals or eateries. She suspects the shift was caused by increased hygiene awareness due to the pandemic. When the JGDA asked the local government what had happened, it was found that the vaccine venue doctor had ordered the dog be kept out of the inoculation area "on hygiene grounds."

    Japan's assistance dog law will turn 20 in May this year. The law obliges public and medical institutions as well as restaurants to allow entry to assistance dogs, including guide dogs. The welfare ministry has issued a notice stating that, in principle, hospitals should allow the dogs to accompany their users into all areas accessible to general visitors and people visiting patients.

    A JGDA representative explained to local authorities that denying Aruta access to the vaccine site could violate the law, and that Umezawa fulfilled her obligation to keep the dog clean by brushing it every day. Umezawa was able to get her second COVID-19 shot with Aruta at her side.

    A guide dog demonstrates waiting for a user as part of promotional activities at a medical institution in Ibaraki Prefecture on Sept. 2, 2019, in this photo provided by the Japan Guide Dog Association.

    According to the JGDA, there were 861 guide dogs in service 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 at medical institutions, while nine were at eateries and six at accommodation facilities. It was the first time since the survey started in 2005 that medical institutions constituted the largest group.

    Some of these institutions told guide dog users that they didn't have any procedures or equipment to handle the animals, and asked the users to seek care elsewhere. Others refused entry based on the misguided view that "there is a high risk dogs will bring in the coronavirus on their dirty paws."

    The number of guide dog refusals has halved during the pandemic, as many people choose to stay in. However, 35% of the 215 respondents to a year-long 2021 JGDA survey of guide dog users reported being denied entry to places with their animals. When facilities were asked why, 41% answered that they were not aware of the law, 24% said they had misunderstood how to accept the guide dogs, and 19% cited a lack of employee education.

    The survey also asked guide dog users about their worries and difficulties when going out, allowing for multiple responses. "It's difficult to maintain social distance" was the top answer, submitted by 42% of respondents, while 19% said they found it difficult to ask for help, including asking people to guide them by the hand. The results suggested some guide dog users are hesitant to reach out to people around them. However, there were also many who said that they began to be approached more frequently following last year's Tokyo Paralympics.

    A JGDA representative commented, "Visually impaired people must not face restrictions to social activities because they are accompanied by a guide dog," adding that it is helpful to ask guide dog users if they need assistance if they appear to be in trouble.

    (Japanese original by Seiho Akimaru, Tokyo City News Department)

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