A substitute for sight
A few years ago Leone Sciberras, who is blind, had to be escorted to his office by someone every day but now he catches a bus to work alone – led by his guide dog Aval.
“Aval changed my life for the better… Now I can use public transport and don’t depend on anyone,” the 29-year-old said proudly.
As the new president of the Malta Guide Dog Foundation, Mr Sciberras is working to encourage other blind and visually impaired people to become independent.
Unfortunately, he said, very few members of the blind community applied to have a guide dog. In fact, over the past six years, there were only 13 applications.
“Blind people need to look for opportunities to become independent and not wait for opportunities to fall in their laps,” he said.
Some were scared of venturing out there alone and this kept them dependent on others to move around.
While not all people were suitable to have a guide dog, perhaps due to their age, the foundation also helped visually impaired people learn how to use the white cane and make their way around.
Mr Sciberras lost his eyesight completely when he was 12, following an accident, but his parents always encouraged him to remain active.
He studied IT and today works in the field, training visually impaired people to use computers and working with people with intellectual disabilities.
His mobility took on a whole new exciting dimension when he was united with Aval four years ago.
Aval is one of seven guide dogs in Malta. The puppies, sponsored by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, are bought from a breeding centre in France. They usually come to Malta for about a year, during which time they live with a family, known as puppy walkers, to get used to socialising in a family environment and going to public places.
They are then sent for a year to Messina for intensive training to become guide dogs. During this period there are matched with their future owners who are also given training.
There are currently three dogs being trained in Messina and another two puppies recently arrived in Malta to start their puppy-walking stage.
The foundation also plans to bring over two fully trained dogs from Bratislava.
Mr Sciberras clarified that the foundation never made a formal request to the Government asking for a school to train guide dogs locally. At this stage the demand was not high enough to make that feasible.
“But this does not mean it will not be feasible in future,” he said.