The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey asked Laura to write an article about her experiences in training to work with a guide dog,  how life changed with the more independent mobility Wagner made possible for her, and some of what the two of them encountered in the aftermath. Here it is:

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The Seeing Eye, The Red Jacket & The Steel Dog
By Laura de Haseth Meddens

How would it feel to you, if, when trying to board a bus, you were told to get off because your companion is not allowed on? Or when walking into a bank, a retail shop, or a restaurant, you are asked to leave, and sometimes shouted at, because your companion is not welcome.

Or when going for a walk, people give you awful looks because of the ill-informed presumptions they have made about you and your walking companion.

Or when going shopping at the Swedish furniture store IKEA, you are told you have to put on a red jacket.

You might feel like you had been transported back in time to the era when human beings were discriminated against because of the color of their skin or forced to wear a yellow star because they were Jewish, and were treated as something less than human.

Well, I have had all those experiences, but not because of the color of my skin. It is because I don’t see very well, and because of the companion who helps me compensate for this impairment. My name is Laura. His name is Wagner. And my life would be quite different without him. Let me tell you a little bit about me and then I’ll tell you a lot more about him.

I was born on the island of Curaçao which lies about 35 miles off the northern coast of Venezuela in the southern Caribbean. It has been a part of the Netherlands Antilles, or what was formerly called the Dutch West Indies.

I went from perfect vision to barely being able to see because a local eye “specialist” overstated his qualifications to use a laser to correct a condition that had developed with my eyes, and ended up essentially “frying” both eyes.

This was utterly devastating to me, and I had to endure many subsequent operations to try and restore my sight, including one that almost killed me. But after going through the various phases of shock, fear, grieving and acceptance, I was determined to not crawl away and hide in a corner.

Curaçao is a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, so I initially tried to get a guide dog through Holland, but was told I couldn’t because I wasn’t insured in Holland. However, the Dutch organization for disabled people (KNGF) was very helpful in letting me know about the wonderful work of the Seeing Eye  in Morristown, New Jersey in the U.S. in helping to give visually impaired and blind people new opportunities for personal growth, increased mobility, and a better quality of life.

Fast-forward to October of 2006, and my arrival at the airport in Newark. I was actually on the way to meet my new companion and I was very excited.

The employees of the airport gave me a first taste of what to expect from people in Newark and Morristown - friendly, welcoming words and kind assistance which made for a very positive atmosphere for visually impaired and blind people. Those impressions were reinforced and amplified when I met the staff at The Seeing Eye. These compassionate human qualities gave me a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, the similar qualities I would encounter in Wagner.

He had very good role models.

Perhaps now is a good time to tell you a bit more about him. Wagner has golden dark blonde hair with a very majestic chest, sparkling brown eyes and is a very enthusiastic kisser. But before you get the wrong idea, let me elaborate a little more. I had actually met his brother Windsor first, who shared all those qualities along with very soft ears . . . but he was already committed to a relationship. Even so, I thought those are the qualities I would like in my companion. So when Wagner was introduced to me, it felt like an instant bond of devotion and companionship, along with those soft furry ears.

Soft “furry” ears?





Yes, my “Waggie” is a very handsome golden retriever, and he is my guide dog. He has rescued me from a life of the diminished expectations that un-impaired people tend to subconsciously impose on anyone with any kind of impairment or disability. The whole experience has been quite an “eye-opener” for me.

A British man named Robert, on the flight to Newark from Curaçao, already whetted my expectations. He told me of the work of guide dogs in England and how well accepted they were in the general society.

When I first arrived at The Seeing Eye facilities in Morristown, I was so excited that the first thing I asked was “when would I get my dog and what kind was it?” The staff, being a little more practical and grounded, asked me if I needed a meal, and said I would meet my instructor later that evening.

The first impressions were overwhelming and I had to get used to the new surroundings. My instructor was Janice Abbott and I was instantly impressed by her intellectual strength and her compassionate nature, which, I learned in class, would be balanced by a certain degree of discipline. And all her clients and their companions would be the better for it.

Initial training started the next day, including breakfast and getting to know some of the other clients. Then, bright and early . . . very early, we started at 5:30am Monday, and were told we would meet our guide dog at 2pm. This was the 30th of October, the day I will never forget.

As part of the process, before I went to Morristown, Lucas Frank from The Seeing Eye came to my house in Curaçao to assemble a personality profile to see if I was capable of having a guide dog. That’s followed up by a further personality assessment after you arrive, and that was done by Janice Abbot who decides the dog assignments because she’s trained so many of them.

After lunch, you are called from your room to sit in a chair and then call the dog’s name … and the dog should then come to you. It’s the first meeting you have. After that, you both go to your room for the whole afternoon to get to know each other. Later in the evening, you take your dog on a leash to have dinner. Following the initial introduction, training starts the next day, bright and early, again at 5:30. All totaled, they are four weeks of very intensive training and I had no idea there was so much to learn about a dog.

       

A suggestion I would make to improve the training is related to a group outing we went on to a local shopping mall near the end of the four weeks. We all took turns walking around the mall with Janice, our trainer. I was the first to go, but then had to sit in a chair for about three hours doing nothing while the others took their turns. I think it would be more practical to give everyone a walkie-talkie and let them walk around individually, or bring along some extra volunteers to avoid the endless waiting, which seems even longer to someone with very poor or no sight – it reinforces the sense of helplessness. People like us always have to sit and be patient . . . we’re forced into that role of dependence, so I was glad to finally be going “home” to the Seeing Eye, because it took much too long.

Other than that, the training was very well balanced . . . and the whole staff, from the administration on down to the cleaning personnel, is very generous and friendly, especially people like Lukas, Judy, Shannon, Pauline, Rick, Chris, John, Lee and Dave and many others. You also quickly make new friends with the rest of the “clients”, and get to bond as a group going through the same training.





Then, after this overwhelming experience, you go home. Suffice it to say, Wagner and I were not exactly greeted with open arms.

In my situation, you go home to an island with an infrastructure that is in stark contrast to what exists in America. No formal sidewalks in a lot of areas, and a culture that is not dog friendly. Dogs here are either guard dogs, or feral dogs, and some of them can be quite dangerous if you encounter them on a walk.

So it became quite an adjustment for the two of us, and I would try to get Wagner into the city to work with proper pedestrian crossings, sidewalks and traffic lights. And there are sidewalks in the area where we lived, so that was helpful for our daily walks, but it’s not as disciplined as it was in the U.S., and sometimes I felt island life was too “lazy’ for a dog as intelligent and highly trained as Wagner. But he also loved the freedom of running along the beach and splashing around in the warm Caribbean Sea.



       


While the island itself is very beautiful, and most of the people are very friendly, it is a somewhat backward culture when it comes to how people with an impairment or disability are treated. You have to fight for your rights and freedoms because, in many cases, you are not allowed to go in certain places, or you have to overcome very narrow-minded and somewhat discriminatory perceptions.

Quite ironic, I thought, in a place that was once a bastion of discriminatory treatment of slaves.

One of the first barriers I encountered was in trying to take the bus. The driver said you’re not allowed to bring a dog on the bus. I explained that he was a specially trained guide dog from America, but the driver kept insisting the ‘Boss’ says “no dogs allowed”. So I called the ‘Boss’ and explained the situation, yet he also said “no”. However, me being me, I told the driver he said “yes” and got on anyway. In a subsequent newspaper article I praised the ABC bus company and that also helped. Now, every time the driver passes, he beeps his horn to say hello and is very friendly.

I met the same resistance with a couple of local banks, and after speaking with management, got the situations rectified. The local Banco di Caribe was very welcoming right from the start, and now all the banks go out of their way to be helpful and welcoming.

Yet, the local Tax Department is a whole other matter. The women on the front information counter were very hostile and I was forced to leave Wagner outside while conducting business inside. Yet another prideful chance to put the “macamba”, or white person in their place, even though I was as much a child of this island as they were.

The same hostility greeted me at a local McDonald’s restaurant until a friend walked the manager through his usual list of questions, such as, “Do you tell people with a cane to get out?” Do you turn away people in wheelchairs?”; Do you make people with colds stay outside?”. Then after explaining to the manager that the whole experience was feeling very much like 30 or 40 years ago when people of his color were told to stay out of certain restaurants and restrooms in America and Europe, he finally got the message and we were allowed in. But we still got these wide-eyed, hysterical looks from people who just didn’t know any better.

Couple that with the “superiority complex” that masks an “inferiority complex” on this island and you also understand why a guard at a gatepost tried to deny us access to the Blue Bay Beach Resort that I had frequented with Wagner many times before. When I requested he call the Manager who had approved the previous access, he simply crossed his arms, and said, “If you know the Manager so well, YOU call him.” As you can see, the quality of customer relations has a long, long, way to go on this island.

So, the biggest challenge is to raise awareness about guide dogs, and also the plight and potential of blind and visually-impaired people on this island, where most of the 4,000 people in those categories are either left completely alone and isolated, or introduced into well intended social groups with other blind or visually impaired people at the local blind institute. But there's nothing in the middle with the kind of resources that are helpful to people like me who lost their vision later in life and with post secondary education.

When I tried contacting Pro Bista, the local organization for the blind, they didn’t show any interest in the benefits of having a guide dog, or even in watching The Seeing Eye DVD, preferring to get people to work with a cane.  (More on the cane in a bit.)

Pro Bista is now supporting the efforts of a woman who is soliciting funding to train guide dogs on the island, but she was originally charging 50,000 Euros per dog and soliciting grants and subsidies from banks and government. When you consider that those 50 thousand Euros could buy 525 dogs from The Seeing Eye at the nominal US$150 that Wagner cost me, you see how that amount of money could bring a much larger benefit to the 4,000 blind and visually impaired people in Curaçao. But at least she’s trying to be helpful and make a difference.

And that’s where I’ve also tried to also be helpful by educating people and showing them that you’re not just a person with a handicap, and that a dog like Wagner can be such a wonderful bridge to more freedom and independence. Once you explain that he’s specially trained not to bite, or pee or poop indoors, people get a little less fearful. I’ve also done a number of newspaper and radio interviews that are helping to raise awareness locally, and Wagner’s becoming something of a local celebrity.

That same education and awareness needs to be done on the home front, and that’s where my second suggestion for the trainers at The Seeing Eye comes in. There needs to be a component added to the ‘curriculum’ that deals with the emotional and psychological impacts of introducing a guide dog into a family situation.

My husband and children had some problems with Wagner’s arrival and new role in my life at first. As my daughter said, “you have changed with Wagner here . . . you should have done it more slowly”. Upon reflection, I realized I had gone from being stuck at home all the time to getting out much more with Wagner, and that took time for everyone to adjust to. And they did.

On a deeper level, I think all of them had sub-consciously intermingled feelings of love with “being helpful”, and that when less of that help was needed because of Wagner’s new role, it was likely misinterpreted that “ I didn’t love them as much” anymore because I wasn’t as dependent upon them as before. Yes, I was less dependent on them than before, but that didn’t change how much I love them. People will always make incorrect presumptions because they’re only human. So I think it would be a very valuable thing to add family counseling to the initial home visit when the personality profiles are conducted, and perhaps as part of a follow-up procedure.

But let me go back to the “you have changed with Wagner here” comment. I haven’t really changed, in the sense that I am the person I have always been, even before my eyesight was damaged. I’ve never been the ‘shrinking violet’ type and would never be content sitting and weaving baskets.

Prior to Wagner’s arrival, I had acquired text-to-speech- software to be able to use a computer and continue my studies in Psychology. I am now involved in the development of a major global Internet and Television venture and will be innovating some initiatives for blind and visually impaired people that haven’t been done before, so I’m very pro-active.

But to put the whole guide-dog experience into a perspective that normally sighted people can understand, and to emphasize what HAS changed, Wagner provides a new level of dignity and self-reliance, in addition to the greater freedom of mobility. And he’s a great ambassador for The Seeing Eye because he’s a very friendly dog and people are always curious about him and want to come up and pet him.

You don’t get any of that from a cane.

I think the cane is much too symbolic, singling you out as “that poor blind person”, as many people have an uninformed tendency to presume.

That’s why a store policy like IKEA’s in Amsterdam is so offensive when they tell you to put on a red jacket if you’re blind or visually impaired.

What are they going to do next, make you wear brown pants if you have irritable bowel syndrome?

When I refused the red jacket, because I was with Wagner and another person, the Manager was called. When he arrived, I said, “you’re not going to start with that yellow star thing again are you?”, and nothing more needed to be said. I walked on without the red jacket.

That’s why Wagner has given me the freedom to be more pro-active as an advocate for people with disabilities to show that we can return some dignity and normalcy to our lives and still achieve the same dreams and goals if given the proper resources to work with.

Emphasis on the “proper” resources to work with.

As if the red jacket weren’t enough of an insult to one’s intelligence and dignity, the association for the blind in Holland, had the brilliant suggestion for me to train with a new dog to adapt to the new surroundings following our family’s relocation to Amsterdam.

Slight problem. This dog couldn’t see, hear, smell or walk. On the plus side, he couldn’t bite, fart, poop or pee either. Well, actually, he couldn’t really do much of anything except roll along with this steely expression on his face. That’s because he was a steel dog . . . on wheels.

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine my reaction to the suggestion that I go from a highly intelligent, sophisticated, specially trained, living, breathing guide dog who had become my best friend, to one whose ears, brain and eyes were essentially forged out of someone’s recycled car bumper. This wouldn’t even qualify as “semi-precious metal”.

Not that they didn’t mean well . . . but sometimes the Dutch have a very blinkered view of the world and can be too systematic for their own good. To be fair, they did need to provide some additional training with Wagner because of a lot of the open Tram systems and some of the different traffic rules. But Wagner has even opened their eyes to new possibilities.

So, step-by-step, Wagner and I are achieving a sense of balance between the more structured systems of Holland and the lazier unstructured island life of Curaçao as we commute back and forth as the work on the projects evolves. I’m looking forward to adding a talking GPS system into the mobility mix, and to raising further awareness through a TV documentary of the tremendous work of The Seeing Eye, the “access experiences” Wagner and I have encountered and our mission to lobby for Equal Access legislation in Curaçao and the Netherlands.  I will also be contributing to a new Television and Internet concept as an ‘AbilityGuide’ to showcase opportunities for blind and visually impaired people around the world.

And for all of this, I have to thank everyone at The Seeing Eye for helping me to “see again” through the wonderfully big brown eyes of my dear “Waggie”, and for being catalysts in my newfound mission to correct the myopic views of those who want to dress all blind and visually impaired people in red jackets and make them walk with steel dogs.

There is so much more to life, and there is so much more to each and every one of us, if you only take the time to see.

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More On The Seeing Eye

Serving as the visionary for screen reader programs and current president of The Seeing Eye, Dr. Jim Kutsch discusses the use of guide dogs for the blind. He tells how he lost his own sight and discusses the challenges that blind persons still face today.

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