Page last updated at 16:20 GMT, Friday, 2 October 2009 17:20 UK

Guide dog age limit to be dropped

Charlotte and guide dog, Paris
Charlotte is helped around her school by guide dog, Paris

Guide dogs are going to be available for visually-impaired children in the UK for the first time - as the age limit is removed.

The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association is to begin training dogs to help blind or partially-sighted people under the current limit of 16.

The association says too many visually-impaired youngsters are lacking in independence and mobility.

"These young people end up isolated," says chief executive, Bridget Warr.

The charity says many visually-impaired youngsters have only a limited social life and have to endure bullying because of their disability.


Giving some of them guide dogs at a younger age is intended to help them to widen their range of activities and to improve their sense of self-confidence and independence.

Charlotte, helped by guide dog
Charlotte is one of the youngest people to have had a guide dog

Guide dogs for these younger teenagers will begin to be provided from next year.

"The picture that emerges from our research is shocking. Children are being conditioned to expect to underachieve for the rest of their lives when in fact sight loss is no barrier to actively contributing to society when the right support is in place," says Ms Warr.

There has been a pilot scheme to test the use of guide dogs with younger people.

Charlotte, aged 14, from Northampton, was among the youngest guide dog owners. She has been gradually losing her vision since the age of eight - and lost her sight completely this year. She has been assisted by a two-year-old Labrador retriever, Paris.

Charlotte used to have a long cane to help her move around but says having a dog allows her much more freedom and makes her feel safer.

At her school, St Paul's Catholic School in Milton Keynes, there is a dedicated unit helping the school's 12 vision impaired youngsters.

However the association says there is a worryingly patchy provision of services for young blind people across the UK and it calls for national minimum standards to be introduced.

As with adult blind and partially sighted people, only a small number of children are likely to be deemed suitable for a guide dog. Most will continue to rely on extra help and training from education and social services.

There are about 4,600 guide dogs helping people - with a Labrador-retriever cross the most commonly-used breed.

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