Our speakers on February 25 were from Leader Dogs for the Blind of Rochester Hills. Founded 81 years ago, they have served more than 16,000 clients over those years.
People who are blind or visually impaired endure hardships we can barely imagine. Things that were once routine and taken for granted, suddenly become insurmountable hurdles.
That’s where Leader Dogs for the Blind steps in. From white cane training to matching people with a Leader Dog, they provide the tools and training to reintroduce people to a life of independence, confidence and companionship. It’s a way of living that leads to a new perspective on life.
We heard from Lora Cabarios, who described the mission and history of Leader Dogs for the Blind. Founded by members of the Lions Club, Leader Dogs graduated 3 client guide dogs in its first year and now graduates about 200 per year, as well as training about 100 clients in white cane travel. They are completely self-supported and rely on donations for all of their expenses. They serve the entire US and 19 other countries. Their mission is to help the 90% of the blind population that do not travel independently to do so. Lora then introduced Jeff Hawkins and his leader dog Gracie.
Jeff described his journey with juvenile macular degeneration, the disease that ended his 25-year career as an EMS paramedic. As with most other blind people, he has some vision on the periphery, but it is not safe for him to travel without assistance. He first went to Leader Dogs for white cane training and then returned for a leader dog. He described the social isolation that affects most of the visually impaired and how a leader dog can help overcome such isolation.
Jeff showed us how he works with Gracie. On command, she can take him back to his chair, to the door he came in by, or to a fire door that he shows her. If he introduces her to an audience member, she can return to that person on command. She guides him through crowds, across busy streets, and on to airplanes, buses, cars, etc. He explained why it is important for people to avoid distracting Gracie when she is working. When he removes her harness, however, she returns to being a dog and can be petted and played with.
For more information on Leader Dogs, see their website.