Beyond the Gates of ‘Seeing Eye’

In Mind, Body & Spirit, Pushing Forward by Neil ParmerLeave a Comment

A visually impaired man with his guide dog.

Standing on the corner of Washington Street and Cattano Avenue in Morristown, New Jersey, Ginger Bennett and Payton, her golden retriever, prepare to cross the street. Bennett firmly calls out the command: “Forward!” and follows Payton onto the road, completely unaware that a large four-door van is about to cut right in front of her.

But Payton halts. And the jolt of her harness signals Bennett to step back onto the curb. As the van rolls to a stop, the driver lowers his window, congratulates the pair on passing Seeing Eye’s final exam and then speeds down the road to test another blind student.

Morristown is a living, breathing classroom and home to Seeing Eye, the oldest dog guide training school in North America, where this year the school is celebrating its 75th anniversary. To date, instructors have matched more than 13,000 specially bred dogs with blind Americans and Canadians, but only after canines have passed the same “intelligent disobedience exam” that Payton aced last year when she stopped Bennett from oncoming traffic.

Disability rights activists have hailed the multimillion-dollar facility as a safe haven for students who must attend intensive four-week classes and live on campus while they train dogs to safely navigate through Morristown’s streets, bus terminals, businesses and restaurants. Yet, this picturesque scene of training cute pooches and of equal opportunities inside the classroom is clouded by the fact that students still encounter everyday challenges and discrimination that can’t-or won’t-be replicated on campus. This contrast between life within the gates of Seeing Eye and what Bennett calls “the outside world” is sharply real for students.

What’s more, Bennett adds, “well-intentioned sighted people” are often less helpful and more of a hindrance when they offer unsolicited assistance. “There is a difference between accepted in society and still maintaining independence,” she says. “Sometimes people interfere and it’s hard to be thankful when they want to help you but they aren’t really helping. It’s a nice gesture,” she quickly adds, “because a lot of people ignore us, but it’s still interference.”

“Interference” from the general public remains the most serious threat to the safety of those who are blind, confirms Seeing Eye instructor, Mike Artis. Whereas, students never command another student’s dog, sighted people regularly call out to the animal, pet it and feed it, thereby, distracting the dog and putting an owner in danger. Michele Drolet, a counselor for students who find it hard adjusting to Seeing Eye’s rigorous program, always walks with her guide dog Angel, a spunky German shepherd. She says she hates it when “concerned people stop us from crossing the street because they’re not sure if we’re safe. Grabbing my arm or stopping us from crossing the street would be like me grabbing the steering wheel when you’re driving a car.” She flashes a quick, self-assured smile and affirms, ‘We know what we’re doing.”

Drolet exudes confidence in both speech and action-her firm handshake, her hurried pace when she walks with Angel and her slick skills on cross-country skis. Back when Drolet was a child, before going blind, she used to downhill ski near her Connecticut home. She decided to take up cross-country skiing after losing her vision completely and trained on trails she couldn’t even see until one day she tried out for the 1994 Paralympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. She glided to a bronze medal finish that year and became the first American female athlete (disabled or able bodied) to win an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing.

But Drolet refuses to be defined by the moment she went blind-or even the day she won an Olympic medal-and so chooses not to speak about how she lost her vision, focusing instead on how Angel has become her new set of eyes based on a combination of both their senses. “A lot of people think that all you have to do is figure out how to use the harness, get the dog to move and then go ahead and cross the street-that’s not true,” says Drolet, adding that contrary to popular belief dog guides can not read traffic lights. “It’s up to me to know when it’s safe to cross the street by learning how to assess traffic and crossing the street with parallel traffic. If it sounds clear I tell Angel to move forward, but if a car is too quiet to hear he’ll consciously disobey my command and rely on his own judgment to protect me.”

Crossing traffic based solely on auditory cues has become increasingly difficult for Bennett and Payton, too, because many new vehicles offer better mufflers and softer running engines. For this reason Bennett actually finds it more frightening to navigate through Morristown’s rural roads than New York City’ s Time

s Square. At the same time she notes, “I’m not sure if the volume of the traffic is so much the issue as the way the traffic patterns are and being familiar with the light systems.”

Bennett learned how to navigate through the quiet streets of Morristown shortly after arriving at Seeing Eye six months ago along with 23 other nervously eager students. She reminisces over how some of them would congregate in one of the comfy lounges outside student residences following the day’s lessons and chat for hours or read popular magazines (written in Braille) while one of the students gently played the piano late into the night. The intimate atmosphere was meant to comfort students who had never traveled far from their hometown or city before and reduce stress for students with dogs who preferred not to follow commands.

Seeing Eye’s environment was so comforting that Bennett decided to return a few months ago to complete a 600-hour internship as part of her requirement at Arizona State University’s recreation management and tourism program. Bennett plans to work for a nonprofit organization after she obtains her undergraduate degree, but before that happens she has to return to Arizona
State and find her way through the university’s meandering paths once more. “Getting lost is not really an option,” she says laughing, because “people feel obligated to help me so they’ll offer directions, but I end up being told the wrong thing and find myself on the other side of campus!”

Being misdirected was a regular problem when Bennett used a white long cane for guidance, but she says that wasn’t the main reason why she opted to get rid of her cane and train a Seeing Eye dog instead. In a subdued voice Bennett explains that a speeding car hit and killed her brother while he was trying to cross a busy traffic lane. Like Bennett, he was blind and used a cane for guidance. “In terms of traffic that made me more frightened,” she says quietly, gently caressing the tip of Payton’s ear.

“When I had a cane I dreaded to go anywhere just because I didn’t have the confidence in my ability to use my cane. I just wanted to be able to walk down the street gracefully at a normal speed, and Payton allows me to do that. Another reason I like having a dog is that, although they’re not trained to protect us, I feel less vulnerable to people in society,” she says.

While Bennett generally feels safer while traveling with Payton, she notes that her sense of comfort all but dissipates when people refuse to keep their dogs on leashes in public places. Now, instead of worrying about her own personal security she stresses over Payton’s. “There’s nothing that makes you feel more vulnerable than standing by and watching your dog get attacked and there’s not anything you can do about it,” she says, describing how her last Seeing Eye dog was bitten and severely injured after a woman in Arizona let an aggressive canine run wild. What was even more paralyzing for Bennett than hearing her best friend’s yelps of pain was dreading that no one would come forward as a witness to the event. “A lot of people have the attitude that ‘you’re blind, so you couldn’t see what happened.’ As it turned out, the lady whose dog attacked my dog came and got her dog and walked off without a word to me-knowing that I could not identify her.”

There is a constant tug-of-war between wanting help and not being able to get it when it’s needed most, Bennett says. What’s even more difficult is feeling constrained by the label “disabled,” since asking for assistance is often seen as a sign of weakness and disability rights activists have pressured her to seek complete independence. To further complicate things Bennett says her profound attachment to Payton often leaves her feeling guilty when she wants to spend time by herself-not only to feel a sense of autonomy but also just to be alone. Normally she cooks at home to help herself relax (ingredients are marked with Braille labels) but this summer Bennett had the chance to quench her thirst for water sports by sailing in a catamaran and then practicing strokes in a one-woman kayak. To find her way back to shore she set up a portable radio on the pier and turned up its volume full blast. By the end of the day, however, Bennett admits she missed Payton. “Even when I’m on a date I don’t go to the powder room alone,” she laughs, tousling a spiky patch of hair on Payton’s head. “We’re like a package deal.”

Package deal, indeed. Both Bennett and Payton sit with perfectly straight posture in a west wing lounge of Seeing Eye’s main building. She says their physical match is simply an extension of the emotional bond they share because her posture, as well as her walking speed and upper body strength, were all measure when instructors paired her specifically to Payton (every student undergoes a similar assessment before being matched to a dog). Bennett stands up, preparing to demonstrate just how well synchronized the duo really is and firms her voice: “Forward!” Following a few brisk steps she directs Payton to “Hup! Hup!”-a signal for the pup to speed up and match Bennett’s long stride.

The team then speeds down the hall and continues to walk in perfect alignment. Unlike some dogs, Payton does not show any signs of having a right or left tendency (a problem where some guides veer to the edge of a sidewalk and cause their owners to bump into objects like trash cans or bicycles). As they turn the corner and go down a staircase specially designed to maximize room for both students and their dogs, Bennett mentions that she encountered difficulty training her first guide because she couldn’t pick up subtle messages that he was sending through the harness. “Now, I am able to pick up some of [Payton’s] messages a lot more quickly -like when we get to a narrow space and she’s not sure if we can make it she kind of looks up at me,” Bennett says. “They all have their different ways of telling you something. It just gets easier in that respect with each dog.”

Shortly after descending the staircase Payton tugs Bennett toward a side door, signaling a much-needed bathroom break. Outside the main building spreads 55 acres of sprawling green fields, carefully intersected by a winding half-mile trail where Bennett often wanders with Payton during breaks from work. The smooth slate path is bordered with old fashion street lamps and country style wooden benches, some of which are detailed with commemorative plaques written in Braille. Down a short walkway and past the memorial statuettes of Buddy I and Buddy II (the pioneer Seeing Eye dogs) are two state-of-the art kennels where more than 300 dogs are housed-golden retrievers, Labradors and German shepherds only, because of their passivity.

In an outdoor kennel some of the younger canines run around their puppy playground; it’s filled with squeaky toys and a small jungle gym used to distract and physically stimulate dogs, which decreases aggression and wrestling that sometimes escalates into dangerous dogfights. Meanwhile, many of the older retired canines sleep peacefully in a temperature-controlled indoor kennel while patiently awaiting to be adopted. Payton may end up here when she’s about 10 years old and less attune to Bennett’s commands, but for now she’s more than content being back inside the main building’s warm west wing lounge where her owner is visiting Michael Moran, a friend and fellow Seeing Eye graduate.

Moran, who currently meets with blind New Yorkers interested in enrolling at Seeing Eye, admits it was depressing when he retired his previous dog guide a few years ago. But that feeling slowly changed after he began training Kurt, his fifth German shepherd. Visually, the two are well matched: Moran is slouched deep in the soft cushions of a plush armchair, while Kurt is comfortably stretched out on the floor with his head lazily resting on his front paws.

“These dogs have so much to them-so much depth-and if the person and the dog are comfortable with each other the dog then feels free to be himself,” says Moran, noting that it was just as difficult for Kurt to open to him emotionally. “After a while it’s like being a married couple! You’ll find that when a person has a pretty good sense of humor the dog kind of picks that up, so you feed off each other.”

At times Moran sounds like a proud father as he reflects on the early part of his relationship with Kurt. Other times, not so much. “Neatness is king, especially if you’re blind, but this guy was worse than a kid when I first got him! He didn’t put his toys back where he got them from, so I ended up stepping on them all the time-but that comes with the territory I suppose.”

Organization, or disorganization in Moran’s case, also comes with the territory of being blind. Both he and Bennett joked about their respective “systems” of Braille labels, tags and the shortage of each in their homes. “I’m bad at being blind!” says Moran. “I’ll walk in a room, put something down, and forget where I put it a few minutes later. I’m terrible! I know where food and clothing is, but that’s it.”

“I know!” Bennett chimes. “One thing I wish for is that you could be blessed with orgnaizational skills when you’re blind.” She thinks aloud for a moment about how she should clip her house keys to Payton’s collar because she always losing them, at least that way could hear them jingle.

During a tidy week Bennett keeps her shoes on different shelves, where each level represents a certain color; her clothing is stacked in Braille-labeled drawers. Fingering the black and white checkered polyester blazer that she’s currently wearing, Bennett explains, “Sometimes I can feel the clothing and I know what it is. But that’s only because I’m probably more organized about my clothes than most of my other stuff in my house,” she says, adding that living alone is a definite perk because no one else can move any of her things around, “not that I would find it either way.”

“After a while though, you get tired of thinking about this all the time,” sighs Moran.

Bennett simply nods her head in agreement and remains silent.

As much as the two friends wish they could take a break from having to reorganize many aspects of their lives, both say they feel a sense of pride when raising awareness in the general public about what it’s like being blind. The quirky tricks they have discovered become the material for inside jokes, but in some ways the slight adjustments remain a cruel reminder that they will always be different. What’s more, ever since Moran reenacted a historical walk down Manhattan’s West Street earlier this year, he has become Seeing Eye’s poster boy for independence. Moran claims it is necessary to first hear a story about the momentous walk he took with Kurt in order to fully appreciate why he feels a mix of privilege and obligation living up to the pressure of being an inspirational role model.

The story Moran tells (which is completely true by the way) begins with a young woman named Dorothy Eustis “in a land far, far away”, Switzerland. In the early 1900’s Eustis used to breed German Shepherds while looking for specific character traits, such as alertness and stamina, in litters of puppies. After realizing the breeding program’s effectiveness she offered the Swiss Army some of her canines to be trained as police dogs. A few years later, in 1927, Eustis visited a school where German shepherds were being trained as guide dogs for blinded veterans of World War I and ended up writing a profile about the one-of-a-kind program in The Saturday Evening Post. She titled the article, “The Seeing Eye.”

A copy of Eustis’ article can be found in Seeing Eye’s Hallway of History, where beside it hangs a letter sent to the writer from a young blind man named Morris Frank. A section of Frank’s letter reads, “Thousands of blind like me abhor being dependent on others. Help me and I will help them. Train me and I will bring back my dog and show people here how a blind man can be absolutely on his own,” he wrote. Eustis responded to Frank’s plea and invited the young man to Switzerland before she selected and trained a German shepherd for him. Frank and his dog guide, Buddy, then returned to the port of New York by transatlantic ocean liner, but because of his blindness both were tagged as a “united express package” and secluded from all other passengers. As the pair disembarked the ship on June 11, 1928, they were met by journalists who openly questioned Frank’s independence and Buddy’s ability to act as his new eyes. “Those obnoxious reporters-no offense-then had the gall to challenge the dynamic duo to walk down West Street,” continues Moran.

Back in the day, West Street was a dangerous expanse of cobblestone that stretched along Manhattan’s waterfront between its shipping piers and neighboring slums. There were no stop signs or signal lights and the traffic was a chaotic mess of horse drawn wagons mixed with old fashion cars and large trucks.”Reporters called it Death Street,” whispers Moran, pausing for dramatic effect and smiling coyly. But like any hero destined for greatness in the rising equal rights movement for the disabled, Frank readily accepted the challenge and ultimately arrived unscathed on the other side of West Street. None of the reporters bothered making the trek and even the lone photographer who met and congratulated Frank and Buddy had taken a cab. Within a year Seeing Eye was officially founded and began operating in the United States.

On June 11, 2003, exactly 75 years after Frank and Buddy crossed West Street, Moran and Kurt resurrected the historical moment at the request of Seeing Eye instructors. The pair walked down the paved road stretching alongside the Hudson River and was greeted on the other side by Carol Robles-Roman, the deputy mayor of New York City, and Carl Augusto, president and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind. Moran is currently helping organize Seeing Eye’s 75th anniversary gala dinner, which is to be held later this year in the school’s massive dining hall-an extension of the classroom that has intentionally been set up to replicate the atmosphere of a public restaurant.

Seated at the dining hall’s tables today are a random mix of Seeing Eye students, alumni, instructors and administrative staff, each of whom are real-life players in yet another interactive exam. Students are encouraged to practice navigating around other diners before sitting down to eat, as well as “tucking” their dogs under the table when meals are served (while instructors busily fork food and take progress notes).

As Moran sits down to his baked ziti and salad, Kurt politely assumes his position under the table; there’s no begging or whining as dogs are given special meals that are individually proportioned by kennel staff earlier in the day. Moran is easily the most popular person at the table as he effortlessly cracks joke after joke until a familiar voice-Drolet’s-playfully calls his humor “crass” humor “and asks him to pass the salt. Moran reaches for the condiments just beyond his plate and casually feels for the small, stout saltshaker (the tall, lean one is full of pepper). He then hands it to Drolet, who’s seated next to him with Angel nestled by her feet.

Bennett, who is seated at the table directly behind Moran and Drolet, finishes her lunch first and prepares to head back to work for her internship. She calls out the command: “Forward!” but Payton refuses to move-a waitress, oblivious to the pair, is standing in the way and carefully balancing an armful of plates. No one congratulates the duo on a job well done this time, since both have graduated from Seeing Eye and are meant simply to be participants in a test scenario for new students. But Bennett verbally praises Payton anyway and smiles, knowing that at times perhaps the world inside Seeing Eye isn’t so different from the one out there.