Romania’s first guide dog shut out from city

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A feature showing the prejudice against guide dogs in Bucharest. Published in ‘The Diplomat – Bucharest’ http://www.thediplomat.ro/articol.php?id=1645

Romania’s first guide dog shut out from city

Golden Labrador Chloe helps blind city resident Gabi Nicolescu move around the streets of Bucharest – but shops, hotels, taxis and buses ban them from going further

Around the blocks, streets and parks of Bucharest, 51 year-old Gabi Nicolescu is walking the first guide dog for the blind in Romania – but no shop, hotel, cafe, taxi or bus will allow access to his three-year old Golden Labrador Chloe.
“The guards say no entry with the dog,” says Nicolescu.
His movement has became so restrictive that he collected signatures on a petition to present to the Government – outlining his plight and calling for a change in the law.
But when he tried to walk through the security gates of the seat of Romania’s Government, Palatul Victoriei, the guards barred his passage – due to his canine assistant.
“The problem is that Romanians do not know what a guide dog is,” says Gabi.
Romania’s Presidential office eventually told Nicolescu that the law will change once a new annex to the UN Declaration of Human Rights is passed, giving further rights to the disabled.
But there is no harmonious EU rule allowing guide dogs access to public places. A Romanian law gives the disabled the right to ‘accessibility’ with animal assistance, but does not specify entry to shops, hotels or public transport.
The country also needs to inform the population that a guide dog poses no threat to business or public health. “This is the problem of being a pioneer,” says Alan Brooks, UK-based guide dog assessor of Chloe.
After developing diabetes in his 30s, engineer Nicolescu lost his sight at 37. Since then, he and his wife have been living in a two-room apartment on the second floor of a high rise. Earlier this year, Gabi called the Romanian-based charity for the sight impaired – Light into Europe – asking for a guide dog.
The charity had a candidate. Two years ago on Romania’s top-rated TV show ‘Dansez Pentru Tine’ [I Dance for You], where members of the public and celebrities cha-cha, waltz and tango to help raise money for underprivileged kids and the sick, the presenters handed then-puppy Chloe to a 12 year-old blind girl, Petra, to become her guide dog.
However each Golden Lab is not born with an instinct to lead sight-impaired humans around town and needs years of assessment and months of training. Chloe was put into a programme under trainer Mircea Gaspar, who realised the dog was better suited to a middle-aged gentlemen than a teenage girl. Petra unselfishly handed over her TV-star dog.
After three months of training in collaboration with the UK’s Guide Dogs for the Blind, Chloe joined Gabi last July.
Handling Chloe has allowed him to independently walk the streets of the city. “She is a very happy dog, we play all day and she is like a child,” he says. “We walk left and right and around cars. Sometimes she makes little mistakes – when we are in the park, she wants to smell the flowers. When we are in street, she has problems with cars parked on pavements – and when a car door opens, she wants to jump inside and I say no, don’t, it is not your car!”

Mean streets

Bucharest’s streets pose threats for the blind. Near Gabi are uneven pavements, low hanging branches and cars on the pavement, which means he has to walk in the road, where the drivers honk and shout: “What the hell are you,” they call out, “blind or something?”
When Gabi and Chloe walk along a street of detached houses, the stray dogs lounge on the asphalt and pay no attention to the blind man and his companion. But the guard dogs in courtyards bark ferociously – some pushing their entire head out of their gates in a snap which could take out a piece of arm from a passer-by. As Chloe trots along the pavement, these protests signify no more to her than white noise.
Guide dogs are becoming more common in east Europe. While there are around 5,000 in the UK, many dogs are active in Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Greece and Turkey are also talking about a school for guide dogs. Romania has a large number of sight-impaired people – 120,000 adults and 4,000 children. Many adults have become blind due to diabetes and work accidents, while the children often have sight problems when born prematurely.
Light into Europe is training another dog, a black Labrador puppy called Midnight, to become either a guide dog or a breed dog for guide dogs. If the latter situation happens, she could be injected with frozen dog sperm shipped in from the UK.
Does she know she could be a breed dog? “By the time she finds out,” says Alan Brooks, “it may be too late.”

Report by Michael Bird

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