My journey with Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind began long before I was matched with my Guide Dog, Mossy. It began when I was less than two years old, about six months after being diagnosed with an eye condition called Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis. This is a rare genetic condition, causing severe vision loss, light sensitivity and colour blindness.
At the time there was little information and no research being done in Ireland so my parents and I travelled to America for genetic testing and to meet with other people with this condition. While there, my mother observed the extraordinary independence of very young visually impaired children who used a white cane to aid their mobility and naturally wished for me to have the same.
After returning home from America, my mother applied for a cane for me and was informed that, in Ireland, canes were only given to children over the age of twelve. It was at this point that my visiting teacher for the blind put us in contact with a new child mobility instructor at the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind Centre. Initially, she taught me pre-cane skills before ordering my first white cane measuring only about 18 inches. I received it just before my second birthday, making me the youngest person in Ireland at the time to use a cane.
Over the next few years, I worked with the mobility instructor, improving my cane skills and increasing my independent mobility. This gave me the opportunity to interact freely with my fully sighted friends and peers without being dependant on a sighted guide. There were however, some disadvantages to using a cane. Often, as I walked down the street, I would be stared at, many people would ask my companions about my cane and would ask them if I needed anything rather than address me directly. I always found the cane to be an obstacle finder rather than an obstacle avoider. As a stubbornly independent person, even from a young age, I felt that if I were to interact in society on an equal level with my peers, these issues had to be rectified.
My mobility instructor had informed my mother and I about Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind and how the dogs are trained, and I immediately decided that I wished to get a dog. Unfortunately, I was only about seven years old at the time and therefore, far too young to get a dog. Instead, my family became involve in the Puppy Raising Programme and took on the task of training a Guide Dog puppy, both to learn more about the work the dogs do and to help the organisation that in years to come would make such a huge difference to my life. We found this to be a very rewarding experience. We trained two puppies, one of whom went on to become an Assistance Dog.
Just after my 16th birthday, having done copious amounts of research, I contacted the Centre to apply for a dog and shortly after this, I was visited by a trainer to complete an initial assessment on my mobility and my eligibility for a dog. Following this assessment, I was placed on the waiting list and in March 2018 I was called to Cork to meet a golden retriever named Mossy, who was a potential match for me.
To try and accurately describe my first walk with Mossy would be an impossible task. Before we left for the walk, the trainer went through the basic commands and gestures to use. We then began to walk and, as a naturally cautious person, I was extremely surprised at how easily I allowed Mossy to take control and guide me. When using my cane, I always felt it necessary to use my remaining sight as much as possible, to the point where I would strain my eyes, whereas walking with Mossy, I felt for the first time that I could relax and know that he would avoid obstacles in a way that a cane never could.
A month later, after being matched with Mossy, I went down to the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind Centre for training. As I was in fifth year of secondary school at the time, and had final exams at the end of May, the staff were unbelievably accommodating, giving me a shorter, more intense training period. My week and a half at the Centre was thoroughly enjoyable. I found the staff to be extremely enabling and I felt that while I was very well looked after, there was no diminution or condescension. The staff and other clients were so friendly and there was such a bright, encouraging atmosphere in the Centre for the duration of my stay.
When I brought Mossy back home and returned to my normal routine, I began to notice a few marked differences. As I walked down the street, people would no longer stare but rather admire my beautiful dog. They began to ask me, rather than my companions, if I or my dog needed anything.
A part of my eye condition is photophobia, trying to overuse my vision while walking with my cane which used to result in severe headaches and eyestrain. Now I felt far more at ease and confident walking with closed eyes on bright days.
I have now been working with Mossy for just over two years and having him by my side has provided me with many opportunities that I would never have had without him.
Last September, I was able to move to Dublin for college with the confidence of knowing I could navigate this new city with relative ease. I have made many new friends from people coming to talk to me about Mossy and the work of Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind. Mossy and I have also done everything from attending concerts to taking a trip to Spain. He has unquestionably changed my life in that he has made me far more independent. He has raised my confidence and he has also given me a far greater incentive to exercise as he loves to walk at an extremely fast pace and for quite an extended period of time. As well as this, he is also a great companion and friend. His quirky personality and unique character never fail to surprise me and his little conversational grumbles always inspire smiles from everyone around him.
Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind have given me so much over the years, from my initial mobility when I was just learning to walk with my first cane, to my new best friend who does the most amazing job and has opened up so many opportunities for me. My journey with this organisation has been quite a long one, I have enjoyed every step of the way and I hope it will continue long into the future.
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