BY EMMA PENGELLY
A blind mother has regained her confidence and freedom after conquering her fear of dogs.
New Eltham-based Hetal Badpodra, 33, pictured, has been blind since birth and said she was absolutely terrified of dogs before meeting her husband Will, who is also blind.
Early into the couple’s relationship Will asked Hetal to look after and feed his guide dog for one evening because he would be out at a Maroon Five concert.
Hetal said: “He knew I was scared of dogs, but I don’t think he quite realised how scared I actually was.
“I was shaking, the food was rustling in the bowl,” she said.
But the evening turned out to be the perfect baptism of fire and Hetal began to beat her fear. She was afraid of dogs from an early age after an encounter with a German Shepherd.
Hetal said: “My parents are Indian and so I grew up in a culture where hardly anybody has any kind of pet, let alone a dog or a cat.
“I have a vivid memory when I was five of a dog sniffing my face. I remember being frozen to the spot.
“I hated the unpredictability of something that was not human. I could never judge where it was going to be or what it was going to do.”
But fast forward 28 years and it is a very different story.
Hetal, now a community engagement officer for Guide Dogs, has been a guide dog owner since 2009 and is currently paired with a two-year-old Labrador Lilly B, while Will has a three-and-a-half-year-old called Kenyon.
Hetal has been blind since birth when she was given too much oxygen as a premature baby, resulting in her retinas detaching, but she is now a mum herself to Jordan, six, and Nikita, two. She said: “I always say I’ve got four children and two of them are furry.”
Getting a guide dog not only reduced the processing effort that came with using a mobility cane, but it gave her the confidence to do everyday tasks like walking her children to school, something Hetal said she would never take for granted.
She added: “Having a guide dog enables me to be the mum I want to be, enables me to be the wife I want to be and have the life I want to have.”
But recent research from Guide Dogs ‘By My Side’ shows that there is more work to be done to help blind or visually impaired people feel confident and engage with their community. The research found nearly three-in-five blind and partially sighted people feel socially isolated and nearly half of blind Londoners feel left out of everyday moments such as dating, socialising and family life.
Hetal said: “As a guide dog owner it is not surprising at all.”
She added: “These results are important so that people understand how visually impaired people are feeling.” ‘
By My Side’ showed these feelings of social isolation stem from a lack of understanding in society of their everyday challenges.
But Hetal said: “The general public have no awareness, not just a lack of it.”
Part of solving the problem is about enabling people to have the confidence to engage with the community and that is where My Guide fits in. The service pairs trained sighted volunteers with blind people to help them get out and about to access community events and increase fitness.
Hetal said the service works both ways because getting blind and visually impaired people into the community will in turn educate sighted people about their challenges.
The report signalled a clear demand for more sighted guides with 67 per cent of those surveyed suggesting more people should be trained.
Jo Milligan, head of volunteer led services at Guide Dogs, said: “Our report clearly shows that far too many people with sight loss are feeling shut out of everyday life. With the number of people with a vision impairment set to skyrocket in the coming years, we need to make changes. We need to work together to understand the realities of life with sight loss and help overcome the challenges that lead to people feeling excluded.”
In a further bid to raise awareness Guide Dogs will launch a four-part podcast series with guests talking openly to some famous faces about how sight loss has affected their lives and relationships.
Celebrities taking part include Alex Jones, Adrian Chiles, Sophie Thompson and Jeff Brazier.
Now is the time to act as blindness is predicted to affect the lives of four million people in the UK by 2050, with 250 people losing their sight every day.