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  • Chris McMillan

China has 8 million blind people, but only 200 guide dogs


13rd November 2029

China has 8 million blind people, but only 200 guide dogs

(CNN) — At the age of 11, Yang Kang lost his vision due to a rare type of eye cancer. But he considers himself one of the lucky few among China's millions of blind people -- he has a guide dog.

Yang splits his time between living in Beijing with his wife and running a piano studio in his hometown Tangshan, a sprawling industrial city some 100 miles away.

His weekly journey consists of a high-speed train ride, two bus rides and three subway transfers through often-crowded stations. It would have been impossible for most blind Chinese, but Yang is blessed with a furry companion that guides him every step of the way -- Dick, a four-year-old Labrador.

Guide dogs like Dick are so rare in China that Yang waited five years to get one. According to state broadcaster CCTV, China only had some 200 dogs in service as of April -- which makes them even rarer than the giant pandas.

The service dogs' scarcity is all the more striking considering the large number of people who could potentially benefit from their help. The China Association of the Blind estimates the country's visually impaired population to be over 17 million. According to the World Health Organization, eight million Chinese are completely blind -- roughly equal to the whole population of Switzerland.

That's one guide dog for every 85,000 Chinese people who have partially or fully lost their eyesight.

In comparison, about one in 50 blind and visually impaired people in the United States work with guide dogs. In Britain, over 1,000 guide dogs are trained each year for a total of 36,000 people who are registered as blind or partially sighted.

Dangerous streets

Navigating Chinese cities can be a daunting task for the blind to manage on their own.

A 2016 survey by the China Information Accessibility Product Alliance found that 30% of the country's visually impaired seldom leave their homes; only one in four regularly go outside by themselves, with the remainder mostly shepherded by family and friends.

Before Dick came along, Yang had to rely on his white cane to get around -- but he said it was difficult and dangerous to cross the multi-lane highways and navigate the numerous pedestrian overpasses and tunnels that make up the Chinese capital by himself. "I was in constant fear," he said. "The most terrifying thing is that I have no idea what the road ahead is like."

While much progress has been made in recent years, Chinese cities are still far from disabled friendly. Even in Beijing, accessibility is lacking in many places -- for instance, not all pedestrian crossings have audible traffic signals for the blind, Yang said.

Even when accessbility facilities are in place, they sometimes fail to serve their purpose. Most Chinese cities, for example, have tactile paving designed to guide the blind lining sidewalks along major streets -- as required by a law passed in 2001. But they are often unfriendly or downright dangerous to use. Some are built to zigzag down a street, while others lead straight into trees, lamp posts or fire hydrants. Many are constantly occupied by illegally parked cars, bicycles or street vendors.

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