Children with vision loss test drive a Guide Dog | Guide Dogs NSW/ACT

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18 February, 2015

Children with vision loss test drive a Guide Dog

Still shot from WIN TV news footage of Jeremy walking with a Guide Dog

Seven-year-old Jeremy was among a number of children who are blind or vision impaired who experienced walking with a Guide Dog for the first time, at a camp in Wollongong on the weekend.

While the children are too young to handle the responsibility of caring for a Guide Dog on their own now, the test drive walk aimed to allow them to experience how this unique mode of mobility might enhance their independence if they decide to apply for one in the future.

The children's parents and siblings also had the chance to walk with a Guide Dog while under blindfold to experience life from their child's perspective.

Guide Dogs NSW/ACT offered these opportunities as part of a 'family' weekend that aimed to provide an educational avenue and support network for families of children with impaired vision.

WIN TV in Wollongong aired a great story about the event, featuring Jeremy, on Monday 16 February. Watch the video on Youtube.

"The weekend was all about providing the child, their siblings and their parents, with the knowledge of what's involved in travelling safely and independently when you have vision loss," said Matthew Walker, Wollongong-based Orientation and Mobility Instructor with Guide Dogs NSW/ACT.

"As vision is the main sense a child would use to understand concepts and learning, it's understandable that without it a child perceives the 'world around us' differently, which provides challenges to achieving their full potential.

"With this in mind, this weekend was also designed to showcase the range of specialised support services that Guide Dogs NSW/ACT provides free of charge to children with impaired vision at every stage of their life, so they can live the lives they choose.

"Our services are there to assist a child with vision impairment to participate freely in everyday activities at school, at home and in the local community."

Jeremy's mother Renee O'Kane said the weekend was an opportunity for the whole family to bond and better understand the challenges that Jeremy faces every day.

"This camp for families was a great experience," says Renee. "Jeremy really enjoyed connecting with other kids who face similar struggles to him, but it was also great for siblings, like Jeremy's brother Hayden, to be included, so they can meet each other, have fun and be recognised for the important role that they play in the family too.

"Vision loss and blindness affects the whole family, and often in different ways at different times. This weekend will no doubt be a great bonding experience for us to do together as a family. Guide Dogs NSW/ACT is such a caring and warm organisation and they have done so much to support us on our journey through life with child who has low vision. We are extremely grateful to be able to access their wonderful expertise and services."

To help parents and teachers better understand how vision loss impacts children who are blind or vision impaired, Guide Dogs NSW/ACT has produced a new educational video called Average8, which can be viewed on the organisation's Youtube channel.

This short documentary, which features Jeremy, asks five children with impaired vision, five questions about their lives and their vision loss. Their answers provide an insight into what it's like to grow up with a vision condition. It has been distributed to schools across NSW.

Over the past year, Guide Dogs NSW/ACT has provided services to almost 450 children across NSW and the ACT who are blind or have impaired vision. According to the Australian Childhood Vision Impairment Register, which is coordinated by the Royal Institute of Deaf and Blind Children, in 2014 there were almost 950 children across Australian with a vision condition.