As a person who is blind, I face many challenges in my everyday life. Over time, I’ve learned ways to adapt and accommodate in order to accomplish the many demands life places on a busy, working wife and mother. Quite honestly, the greatest challenge I face with my vision loss is mobility. The simple act of traveling from point A to point B safely and confidently is something I never take for granted. One way in which this can be done is with a white cane. Many blind people are wonderful cane travelers. Although I have been trained in this technique, I simply have never been a confident cane traveler. It’s an investigative process, and I feel slow and awkward when I use my cane. So I prefer to use a guide dog.
I wish I were a gifted wordsmith, so that I could describe the relationship between a guide dog and its handler. It’s more than a partnership; more than a friendship. It’s a relationship that rarely finds you more than three feet apart from one another for many years. You navigate all of life’s obstacles together. It’s a unique bond built on lots of hard work, plenty of ear scratches and belly rubs, and much, much love. Earlier this year, I said goodbye to my previous guide, a beautiful yellow lab named Newton. I won’t go into that grief and heartache right now. I will simply share with you how I honored the work he did for me by partnering with a new guide dog.
On June 24, I boarded a plane bound for New Jersey. The Seeing Eye is the oldest guide dog school in the world. It was founded in 1929 and has a very rich, interesting history. (You can learn more by visiting their website at www.seeingeye.org.)
I arrived on campus along with 15 other students. All of us were there to embrace a renewed sense of freedom through a new canine partnership. Some of us were there as returning students, while others had arrived to train with a guide dog for the first time. The atmosphere of excitement mixed with a healthy amount of nervousness is palpable the first couple of days on campus as we wait to meet our match on the third day. The wait time allows our instructors to get an accurate measure of how fast we walk, how much pull we would like to feel in a harness handle, among many other things in order to make the best possible match for us and our dog.
On the morning of June 26, the excitement was almost too much for us to bear! Our instructors had selected a dog for each student. Volunteers had been on campus since before dawn, freshly bathing each dog for the moment they get to meet their person. The mood was a cross between Christmas morning and a maternity ward waiting room! Everyone hurriedly ate breakfast, sat through a seemingly interminable lecture preparing us for the first moments with our dogs, and then rushed off to wait for the big moment to arrive.
I sat on the edge of my bed, new leather leash in hand. I listened as others on the hallway answered the knocks at their doors and met their new dogs. I thought of Newton. How he would want another dog to keep me safe. Finally, the knock came to my door. I opened the door and my instructor handed over a large, male German Shepherd named Boomer! The first moments were all excited jumps, sniffs, and licks. I ran my hands over my new dog as my instructor described his coat and appearance to me.
The next 17 days were a whirlwind of training! Boomer had to learn to want to work for me and I had to learn to trust him. Together we learned to navigate busy streets and complicated intersections. We traveled on trains and buses, through parks and businesses, up escalators and elevators, through revolving doors. Boomer sat patiently at my feet as I sat through lectures on how to give him the best care throughout our future years together. He quietly nestled at my feet under dining tables as I made lifelong friendships with my classmates. To call the training intense is an understatement. There is so much to accomplish in a short amount of time in order to lay the best foundation for a successful partnership. After almost 3 weeks, we were ready to head home to our family.
This brings me to today, just a few short weeks after arriving home with Boomer. Our partnership is still in its infancy, but the freedom and independence that having this beautiful guide dog affords me is not quantifiable. I’ve said before that living with a disability makes me want to strive for the ordinary. I want to be an ordinary wife, and ordinary mom. I want to do all the ordinary things: a quick run to the grocery store, a stop at the post office to drop off a package, a walk in the park with my children. For me, these are simple acts of independence. Ordinary acts, accomplished with the help of an extraordinary dog.
Mollie Hernandez is a Staff Advocate at Disability Rights Arkansas. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.