Ex-emergency room doctor Amit Patel, who lost his sight to keratoconus, strapped a GoPro camera to his guide dog, Kika, to help people understand the world from her point of view. The camera recorded Kika’s highs and lows – including some thoughtless behaviour from fellow commuters on the London Underground – with the footage uploaded to Twitter.
Little did the 37-year-old know, but the videos transformed the pair into international media stars, after interviews with the BBC, the Evening Standard and even the US’s CBS News. OT caught up with the Londoner to discuss the experience.
What inspired you to put a GoPro on Kika?
Over the winter, we had a lot of instances where other commuters were telling me that Kika had just been hit or barged out of the way. The only time I could tell something was wrong was when Kika would stop or if she took an unexpected direction.
Sometimes, when we were going to a new location, I would get assistance from a station staff member. I would drop Kika’s harness, hold her by the lead, and hold the arm of the station staff member. You wouldn’t believe how many times people would try to walk between me and the staff member or between me and Kika – even when she had her harness on.
I say to people, try doing your set route – the one you do day-in, day-out – with your eyes closed. London is a scary place anyway when you can see. So think what it’s like when you can’t see. I still feel scared. It’s mentally and physically tiring.
If I have a bad day, Kika has a bad day, as she feels the vibes. And vice versa, I feel it as her pace slows down and I can tell something’s wrong.
Because of all of this, I thought it would be nice to put a camera on Kika and show the world what she sees.
What was it like when you and Kika became headline news?
We had no idea it would go this big. When we originally put a video of Kika up on Twitter, it was just to show people how hard she worked. It went absolutely viral. We’ve had interviews in Japan, India, the US, Canada, and the rest of Europe. It’s been absolutely crazy.
What I’ve got from all of it is that people don’t know how to approach visually impaired people. In the last couple of days, I’ve had people come up to me and say they’ve read the link I posted online, and they know how to approach me now. They told me that they’d seen me in the station for the last year, but didn’t know whether to approach me or not.
Has the presence of the camera improved people’s behaviour?
A lot of people notice the camera before they notice the guide dog, which is crazy. They even notice the mount, when the camera is not on it – but they still don’t always move out of the way.
I was talking with a lady just a few days ago and she said that she’d seen me on TV, and told me it was wonderful what we were doing. When we get to London Bridge station, she nearly falls over Kika at the escalators, because she’s back in ‘work mode.’
But then when I was at London Liverpool Street the other day, I had more people approach me and ask me if I needed help that day than in the year and a half that I’d had Kika – over 15 people in five minutes.
But we’re getting there, I think. People now appreciate it a bit more and have started talking about it. That’s all we wanted.
Tell me about your work with the Royal National Institute of Blind People.
I help with the ‘Living with sight loss’ courses, because those courses actually changed my life. I would arrive after going through the busy stations, and I was so mentally and physically tired. I felt like a little scared boy. When I had sight, I was so independent.
I was depressed, but then when I started talking with other people in the same situation about what I was going through, I’d see they were going through that too. It was nice to hear stories from other people.
It was a six-week course, and while I was the quiet one at the beginning, by the end I was the loud one, the one who had all the questions. On the course, I made some amazing friends.
What are your tips for helping people with visual impairment, particularly on public transport?
People should know that it’s absolutely fine to go and approach someone who they think might need some help. They should tell them their name, and ask if they need assistance. There is no harm in that. You wouldn’t believe the confidence that gives someone like me.
But the worst thing you could ever do is grab a visually impaired person by the arm, assume you know where they want to go, and take them there. It’s so scary. You don’t know if you’re about to be mugged. It’s a bit too much.
One thing to remember if you do guide someone is to make it clear when you’re leaving. I’ve stood there talking to myself, and you feel like a right plum.
On the tube, Kika has a set spot – the fold-down chairs. That way I can sit down and she can tuck underneath. That way she is out of the way, and people don’t have to walk over her. People in those seats sometimes don’t react, or offer us a seat. But then, I’ve had pregnant women get up off seats for me.
There’s that 1% of people who do things without thinking about it, but 99% of the time people are amazing.
Click here to watch a video of Kika guiding Amit on the London Underground.
Image credit: Amit Patel