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28 September, 2016

All aboard!

Two young children holding long canes on board a ferry in Sydney Harbour

Children with vision loss explore Sydney Harbour by ferry

For the first time, a Guide Dogs NSW/ACT school holiday program aimed at giving children with vision impairment the skills to safely catch public transport had youngsters exploring Sydney Harbour by ferry.

The Guide Dogs program for primary school age children aims to teach skills and strategies to increase confidence so participants can eventually be independent travellers.

On Tuesday, the young participants spent the day with Orientation and Mobility Specialists from Guide Dogs NSW/ACT on board a ferry in Sydney Harbour. They learnt how to safely get on and off the ferry, the safety procedures on board such as locating life jackets, and how to communicate with Harbour City Ferry staff.

A young girl with vision loss uses her cane to safely board a ferry

"This program gives children with vision loss the opportunity to learn skills in a fun, supervised and encouraging environment, without the crowds or time pressures of real-life ferry travel," Guide Dogs NSW/ACT Orientation and Mobility Specialist, Sarah Farrugia-Martin said.

"Most of these children will not be able to drive a car, so they will have to rely on public transport. Our aim is to prepare them for independent travel in the future."

A young boy with vision loss drives the ferry

The following day, the children used their new travel skills to catch the ferry to Taronga Zoo.

"Going to the Zoo is a fun reward for the kids, and a chance for them to practise getting somewhere by ferry," Sarah said.

"The Zoo is also a great place for the children to practice their mapping skills, such as using checkpoints and landmarks to navigate their surroundings."

Sarah said along with being a great learning experience, the school holiday program also allows young participants to meet other children who are vision impaired.

"It gives them the opportunity to socialise and share experiences with each other about having vision loss and what works best for them," she said.

Prior to the program, development staff from Harbour City Ferries received training from the Guide Dogs NSW/ACT Community Education team.

"We provided staff with communication strategies to help them best assist a person with vision impairment and taught them practical skills such as how to guide a person if they request support," Guide Dogs NSW/ACT Community Education Officer, Tiffany Mitchell said.

"It was great to work with the team from Guide Dogs NSW/ACT," Steffen Faurby, CEO Harbour City Ferries said.

"Our focus is always on our customers, and this was a welcome opportunity to build our skills to help us to best assist a person with vision impairment."

While training Guide Dogs is an important part of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT work, the most common program is showing people with impaired vision how to safely move through different environments, using a range of mobility aids and electronic devices.

Last year, Guide Dogs NSW/ACT assisted 521 children with vision loss and the organisation continues to rely on the support of the community to fund its free services.

Every day 28 Australians are diagnosed with uncorrectable vision loss, including nine who become blind.