by Angela McCoy
When I describe Guide Dogs for the Blind program dogs that don't become Guide Dogs as "career change" dogs, my tour groups always chuckle. Somehow it's cute to think about dogs making career changes. But while I embark on my own career change, those words now represent an unknown and somewhat worrisome future. On tours I explain that career change dogs move on to lots of wonderful roles. By enrolling in San Francisco State's Orientation and Mobility program, I hope to do the same.
As a volunteer docent for Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, CA, I happily familiarize visitors with the awe-inspiring program. So when Sharon Kret, GDB Volunteer Department program specialist, told me a group of blind teenagers was on my tour, I was eager to share what the campus has to offer. I thought the group would also appreciate meeting Bruce, the retired breeder dog my husband and I look after. He passed a special docent dog training so he could accompany me on tours.
Driving to campus with Bruce proudly displaying his docent dog scarf, I had no idea that afternoon would start me thinking about a new career. Two other volunteers greeted us on campus. One was orientation and mobility specialist (O&M) Betsy Laflamme. As the teenagers arrived, I quickly realized how much I needed Betsy's help that day. Visually impaired visitors on my previous tours were with sighted friends or family members. Though these teenagers used canes, they were in unfamiliar territory. We also shared the even greater challenge of a language barrier.
The teenagers, along with their also blind teacher, Sabriye Tenberken, were visiting from Tibet where they attended Braille without Borders, a school for children who are blind. Since blindness is not as well accepted in Tibet, Sabriye courageously started the school to inspire and educate children otherwise isolated by their families. With Betsy's O&M support and translation from Sabriye I showed them around campus. While they learned about Guide Dogs from me, I became more intrigued by them. Their enthusiasm for life, learning and books made prying them out of the GDB library difficult. They also took several photos to preserve the memories of their visit. I learned they were here to promote a movie in which they climbed Lhakpa Ri, a 23,000-foot peak next to Mount Everest. Talk about inspiring. I doubt my ability to make that climb as a fully sighted person!
Incredibly smart, strong and protective of her students, Sabriye also amazed me. Bruce must have agreed. He went so far as to give her a big lick on the face. She was taken off guard and I did not blame her for politely refusing additional "kisses" from Bruce. Looking back I am equally embarrassed I did not ask before physically assisting the group. I took note as Betsy did this with confidence and ease.
That night at home, curious to learn more about the teenagers and their movie, I went online. The group left quite an impression but not until reading more did I realize how much. I stayed up until after midnight researching Sabriye, Braille without Borders and the movie chronicling their Lhakpa Ri climb -- Blindsight. I also found myself on San Francisco State's Orientation and Mobility Program webpage. I knew O&M training was required to get a Guide Dog, but it never occurred to me that I could make a career out of teaching those skills.
I began to realize that teaching people who are blind to navigate an environment using a white cane is like giving a gift of freedom. I could not think of a more fulfilling way to spend my working days. Now venturing on my new career path, I draw from my past experiences. Nine years as a corporate marketer have given me the unique ability to explain and simplify complicated concepts while my undergraduate work studying communication helps me understand and appreciate different perspectives and interaction styles. Lastly, volunteering at GDB has taught me that people who are blind are the same as everyone else. It just so happens they don't see as well. As an O&M specialist I hope to promote this concept and to help people who are visually impaired enjoy all that life has to offer.
To learn more about San Francisco State’s Orientation and Mobility Program, visit: http://online.sfsu.edu/~mobility.