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.
That’s one guide dog for every 85,000 Chinese people who have partially or fully lost their eyesight.
Navigating Chinese cities can be a daunting task for the blind to manage on their own.
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.
“The ‘blind paths’ are basically impossible to walk on,” said Yang, who gave up following them years ago. “They’re not built or maintained with the convenience of blind people in mind.”
CNN’s asked the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development whether it is overseeing how tactile pavings for blind people are built and maintained, but did not receive a response.
The poor upkeep of roads, in general, often poses another hazard — Yang once fell into an uncovered seven-feet deep manhole while passing through an old residential compound. Luckily he did not suffer serious injuries, and managed to climb out of it.
China’s first guide dog school
Yang first learned about guide dogs in 2008 — when a golden retriever led Ping Yali, a partially blind long jumper who won China’s first Paralympic gold medal, into the opening ceremony to relay the torch for the Beijing Paralympic Games.
After three years of researching and making calls, Yang finally found out where to apply for one — a guide dog training center in the northeastern city of Dalian.
Wang Jingyu, an animal behavior expert at Dalian Medical University, decided to train China’s own guide dogs after noticing that, unlike their Western counterparts, blind Chinese athletes did not have guide dogs to help them during the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games, said Liang Jia, a staff member at the Dalian center.
Without any prior knowledge or experience, Wang researched online how to train guide dogs and sought help from international experts.
The facility has expanded over the years — it now keeps 100 in various stages of training, and more than 20 graduate each year.
The puppies — mostly Golden Retrievers and Labradors, chosen for their gentle, friendly nature — are first sent to foster families for a year to learn to live with humans, before returning to the center for another year of professional training. It is a lengthy and strict process — along the way, about 60% of the dogs will be disqualified and put up for adoption as pet dogs. The causes for disqualification can include showing aggression, having excessive energy, being overly sensitive to pressure, and lacking the ability to remained focus, as well as suffering from car sickness.
After passing all the evaluations, a qualified guide dog will be matched with an owner and undergo another 40 days of joint training, before it can follow the owner to its new home.
Limited by funding
The lack of funding is a key constraint for China’s guide dog schools, Liang said. As a nonprofit, the Dalian center provides guide dogs to applicants for free, but each animal costs about 200,000 yuan ($30,353) to train. In the early years, Wang used his own savings to keep the center running. Then, in 2010, the Dalian government started to subsidize the center with 60,000 yuan ($9,106) for each guide dog it trains. The center also receives donations from the public, but they’re often not enough to cover the cost — currently, it faces a 30% budget deficit, according to Liang.
“If we had more sufficient funding, we’ll be able to train more guide dogs,” Liang said. “But the reality is, we can only operate on the money we’ve got.”
The center currently has about 30 instructors. Many of them are young university graduates who are passionate about dogs and helping others — and are committed enough to accept a monthly salary 60% below the city’s average income.
Liang, who graduated from university in 2011, gave up her job offer as a civil servant to join the center as an instructor — against the advice of everyone around her. “My parents disapproved it, and my boyfriend broke up with me because of it, but I had my mind set on the job — it is a cause that’s worth devoting my passion and youth for,” she said.
Liang hopes the government — especially the central government in Beijing — can offer more funding, given that its guide dogs are offered to applicants not just from Dalian, but all over China. The center is also trying to raise public awareness about guide dogs on social media, hoping to bring in more donations.
Yang, and other guide dog users, said that guide dogs have become more accepted by the Chinese public in recent years. More often than not, they are allowed on subways, buses and trains, especially in first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
While guide dogs have allowed Yang and others to travel more freely, there are also obstacles — many hotels still don’t accept guide dogs, and buying a plane ticket can sometimes turn into a bureaucratic nightmare. Even if a guide dog has valid work permit and proper vaccine certificate, many airlines requires a separate health certificate — the kind needed for the transportation of pets and farm animals, which can be tricky to obtain.
Chinese laws are vague on the use of guide dogs in public. The Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons says “blind persons shall comply with relevant state regulations when entering public places with guide dogs,” but it doesn’t specify what the “relevant state regulations” are.
Some cities have issued their own policies to allow guide dogs in public places and transports, but enforcement can be spotty.
Yang said he had been turned down by bus drivers, hotels and restaurants, but he wasn’t discouraged. Instead, he treated every refusal as an opportunity to let one more person learn about guide dogs.
“There are only some 200 guide dogs in a country of 1.4 billion people — the chance of meeting one is extremely low,” he said. “That’s why we need pioneers to introduce them (to society.)”