January 01, 2006.
Trust doesn't come easy to a blind person. We grow up fighting to be accepted as "normal" human beings. Although I was cane-trained around age eight, I refused to even use a cane in grammar school and high school because the cane made me "different." I associated canes with those "blind people" and I knew I wasn't one of them. Dogs were even worse in my mind. The whole image of blind people being led around by some animal was repugnant to me. It made them seem so different - so disabled - and I was damn sure I wasn't going to be one of "those people."
I expect most teenagers fear being different but for a blind kid that fear is even more acute. And so I made my choices based on what would make me seem more normal - more like all those sighted people. I made some pretty limiting choices as a result.
Strangely enough as I grew up, a lot of the blind people I knew and admired had dogs, but I had lots of good reasons for why a dog wasn't for me. I didn't want the responsibility of a dog. I couldn't give up the time necessary to train with a dog. I could get around just fine with my cane and I didn't have to feed it. I didn't know how a dog would work with my family; etc. etc. What I was really saying, of course, was that I was afraid to put my trust in a dog. So I built my life around making do with my cane and soliciting the help of strangers. I've traveled the world that way, taking trains, planes, and taxis. Those around me thought of me as unrestricted - able to do most everything I wanted to do. And while the cane worked I can remember many times where keeping my concentration on the cane, my surroundings, and just trying to enjoy a walk were impossible. Then I visited a blind couple in Minneapolis and my life changed.
I spent the weekend at my friends' home and during dinner they suggested we go to their church for Sunday service. I said, "Great," thinking we would grab a taxi and motor the two miles or so from their house to the church. But my friends grabbed their coats and harnessed their dogs and headed out the door. We were walking - almost running. I had to hustle to keep up.
That walk of about two miles through the suburbs, crossing busy streets, taking all manner of turns, was exhilarating. I was out there in the world, going some place I didn't know, with two other blind folks and a couple of dogs. If anything my cane slowed me down. But we got there. It was like being chained and suddenly having the chains cast off. I was free.
Sitting there in church, I did some serious soul-searching, trusting that God would show me the truth. I realized that my fear and arrogance were only hurting me. I could open this door anytime I was ready. Freedom to go wherever I wanted by myself was there if I could only put my trust in a guide dog.
As CEO of Serotek, the company that designed and markets FreedomBox, my natural course of action was to plug my Key to Freedom into my friend's computer and do some instant research on guide dogs. The FreedomBox search engine turned up a list of sixteen guide dog schools, fourteen of which had web sites. I was in business.
My research showed them all to be top quality organizations. For a variety of reasons I zeroed in on two: Pilot Dogs Incorporated of Columbus, Ohio and Southeastern Guide Dogs, Incorporated in Palmetto, Florida. Finally I settled on Southeastern Guide Dogs. I had met the trainers of Southeastern at ACB in Las Vegas and liked them. And their proximity to my home in Orlando was also a big factor. They also had a slot open up for me that fit my busy schedule. I'm sure that any choice would have been a good choice, but Southeastern Guide Dogs far exceeded my expectations.
I will let you see the details of the operation for yourself at www.guidedogs.org, the school's top notch, highly accessible and informative web site. Let me say that the accommodations were superb and the staff was excellent and extremely service oriented. The school's trainers served us and they couldn't have been more solicitous of our needs. The most frequently heard expression was, "What can I do for you?"
We were a class of ten from all walks of life. The twenty-six day program was intense. We were busy from 5:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with dogs leashed to us the entire time; yet the school was also able to give me space and time to attend to emergency business situations, if the need arose. The intense period is needed to allow dog and owner to bond and, quite frankly, to train newbies like me in the art of trusting our dogs to do some of our mobility thinking for us. It's not as easy as it sounds - especially for people like me who had long taken pride in our "independence."
Jacksan, was named after JACK and SANdy Walsh. For over 14 years, they dedicated themselves to the raising of guide dogs for Southeastern. It is people like this that make system work and make beautiful animals like Jacksan available to people like me. Jacksan is a Vizla, a shorthaired Hungarian hunting dog. He is a marvelous animal, extremely well bred, cared for, and trained in the Southeastern system. My thanks to Libby Bagwell who loved Jacksan and raised him from a puppy to training age and to Karen Lappi, Jacksan's sponsor. He is young and still learning, but so too am I still learning. For twenty-six days we learned together and it is an experience so rich I won't try to describe it to you. You simply have to experience it for yourself. The day you suddenly realize that you do indeed trust this animal with your life is an epiphany - an awakening to freedom.
Of course it is not just a learning experience for Jacksan and me. Everyone around us has to learn as well. The first time home was a real challenge. My beautiful and loving wife and children had a very difficult time not treating Jacksan as a pet. But they did it and I'm proud of them. I'm still training people I meet on business trips and come in contact with in stores. They always want to talk to the dog; no one wants to talk to me any more. Jacksan's downside is that he doesn't look fierce as a German shepherd might so people want to reach out and pet him. And, puppy that he is, Jacksan isn't entirely blameless either. He does love to be loved. The solution is, of course, to give him lots of off-the-harness love time with me and an occasional pat from others, while keeping him fully on task when he's in harness. It's a discipline and once you establish your routine, easy enough to follow.
I started this essay trying to say what the guide dog experience means to me and I seem to have focused more on the how-to than the benefit. Let me tell you about the change in my life. I'm totally blind and for the first time in my life my first thought is no longer about appearing "normal." I'm finding the blind community that perhaps I thought of as simply customers are also now my friends. With my guide dog there isn't much a sighted person can do that I can't do, except maybe drive a car and that only because they haven't designed the controls so a guide animal can operate them. (I am joking of course.) However, I can walk through the airport and find my gate simply asking directions now and then or by following someone going my way instead of waiting for airline personnel to walk me.
I could easily take the light rail when I'm in Minneapolis or the subway in New York. When you've spent a lifetime plunking down twenties and fifties for taxis, public transportation is a real freedom. I am not saying that a cane isn't handy and that I didn't do these things before I got Jacksan, but, I can just go where I want to go, not just the places I've learned. I no longer have to act independent. I really am independent.
So I say to myself, "Why did you wait so long?" And there really isn't a good answer. I just let my prejudices and fear take charge. I was afraid not to be in control - afraid to trust. Like so many fears, once faced, it vanished.
With Jacksan I'm discovering a world I didn't believe in and I'm discovering things about myself that I didn't know. I am more comfortable with myself because I am truly independent. I discovered that in a world full of barriers for blind people, sometimes, some of the biggest barriers are the ones we construct ourselves. Putting my faith in my little brown friend; trusting him to do what the marvelous people in the Southeastern Guide Dogs organization raised and trained him to do, has vanquished those barriers.
One of the very biggest challenges in this process is that Jacksan is just for me. Most of my adult life I've oriented myself towards doing and caring for others, like my family; but this I did for me. I had to come to grips with the fact that doing this for myself wasn't a selfish act, but like so many barrier eliminators, it made life easier for everyone around me.
There is a certain irony here. My company, Serotek, states its mission as "Accessibility Anywhere" and we deliver on that promise by providing tools like FreedomBox and System Access to make the Internet and digital information systems accessible for blind people and people with motor skills difficulties. But for me, it is my guide dog Jacksan that completes the promise of Accessibility Anywhere. As a team we are virtually unstoppable.
If you are blind or know someone who is blind that has yet to discover the freedom a guide dog brings, let me suggest that you contact Southeastern Guide Dogs or any of the other fine organizations around the country that perform this service. I guarantee it will change your life as it has mine.
Mike Calvo is the CEO of Serotek Corporation. A company providing online services to the millions of people with a disability that have been disenfranchised from accessing the internet because of challenging and costly access technology. Visit www.freedombox.info for more information or call (866) 202-0520.0
Email services by FreedomBox. Surf the Net at the sound of your voice. www.freedombox.info
Source URL: http://www.freedombox.info.
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