The Braille Monitor                                                                                               January, 2004

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Another Perspective on Guide Dogs and Training Centers

by Angie Matney

Angie Matney and her guide dog Glaze.
Angie Matney and her guide dog Glaze.

From the Editor: From time to time we publish articles about mobility and the tools blind people use to achieve it, whether they be canes, dogs, or high-tech solutions. In the October issue we printed an article by James Omvig that discussed the role of canes and cane travel in the work of NFB orientation-and-adjustment centers. Angie Matney is a past NFB scholarship winner. She holds an MS in mathematics and is currently working on an MS in rehabilitation counseling at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is treasurer of the Virginia student division. This is what she has to say:

In his article "On White Canes and Training Centers" in the October, 2003, issue of the Monitor, Mr. James Omvig outlines his reasons for recommending that orientation-and-adjustment (O&A) centers refuse to allow students to use guide dogs during training. As a guide dog user I was intrigued by some of the points he made. In particular Mr. Omvig presents an excellent illustration of the role informed choice should play in the process of adjustment to blindness. Informed choice should not allow someone to force a program to substantially alter its curriculum. However, I disagree that guide dogs are inherently incompatible with O&A training. Furthermore, I believe it is imperative that the staff of our O&A training centers find a way to enable guide dog users to attend training while using their preferred mobility aid. I hope that Federationists will consider what I have to say.

Mr. Omvig begins his article by explaining that, as someone who is "intimately involved in the rehabilitation system," he is able to offer a unique perspective on this issue. Indeed Mr. Omvig has done much to further the cause of empowerment for blind people over the years. However, I feel that the perspective of someone who has actually traveled extensively with a guide dog is at least as important to the consideration of this issue. While I am not a leading expert on guide dog mobility, my experience as a guide dog user has provided me with insights that might well be unapparent to even the most dedicated professionals in the field of rehabilitation for the blind.

Mr. Omvig points out that carrying and using a nonfolding, long cane makes it impossible for students to try to hide their blindness. The same is true of using a guide dog. One could argue that working with a guide dog forces students to deal even more directly with public attitudes about blindness since people are more likely to approach and ask questions of a guide dog user than a cane user. This has certainly been my experience: I have answered more questions about blindness (and introduced more people to positive Federation philosophy) in my nearly three years as a guide dog user than I did in my sixteen years using a cane. This is not meant to suggest that the public's preference for dogs over canes is an advantage of guide dog mobility. It simply illustrates that the guide dog is at least as effective, if not more so, as a straight cane at increasing the visibility of a person's blindness.

Mr. Omvig also says:

When the student completes a long and complicated travel route independently using only the cane, that success in and of itself evokes feelings of pride and self-confidence--I did it!...If exactly the same long and complicated training assignments--or the shorter trips--are completed using a guide dog rather than a cane, the trainee does not experience the same boost of self-confidence. "Did I do it, or did the dog do it? I wonder if I could have done it without the dog?"

The above statements are nothing more than conjecture on Mr. Omvig's part, even though they are presented as facts. They represent Mr. Omvig's own opinion of guide dog mobility, but a significant number of people who have used guide dogs would disagree.

For example, I've recently moved to a new city, and while this isn't the same as receiving initial O&A training, it does involve the use of certain orientation skills that might not be fully used in an area where everything is familiar. I recently decided to find a coffee and bagel shop that has a good reputation at my university. Anyone who knows me knows how exhilarated I would be to find a coffee shop. I found the place with the assistance of my dog, and both of us were pleased. I recognized the part that she played in the mechanics of getting me there, but I am also well aware that she did not make the decision to go there. She did not look for the address or get directions to the location. She didn't decide when to cross a street; she didn't choose whether to turn right or left when we reached an intersection. I know that I did all of these things, and I know that I could do the same things without a guide dog. And my exhilaration in finding the coffee shop on my own was in no way diminished by my dog's being there to share the experience with me.

Mr. Omvig adds: "Actually it has always been my understanding that the guide dog schools themselves have had the policy that consumers must be adjusted to their blindness and also be good cane travelers in order to qualify for admission into their programs."

It's true that most guide dog schools expect a certain level of proficiency in cane use from their students. In fact, if everyone agreed on what constitutes a good cane traveler, the discussion of whether dogs should be used in O&A centers would be irrelevant, since all guide dog users would, by necessity, be good cane travelers. Unfortunately, however, no such agreement exists. We know this because so many graduates of other O&A programs go on to attend NFB centers: they recognize that, while they may have some knowledge of cane technique, their orientation skills and general confidence are not what they could be. And just as cane users do not always receive satisfactory O&A training on the first try, guide dog handlers sometimes don't either.

It's important to keep in mind that the words "orientation" and "mobility" actually refer to two separate skill sets. The first involves an understanding of spatial and directional relationships, while the second refers to the ability to move safely through one's environment. For the most part guide dog schools focus on mobility instruction and don't even claim to teach orientation--or any other aspect of adjustment to blindness. They try to select applicants whose travel skills permit them to learn a new mobility tool without orientation instruction from school staff. But the measures with which these skills are assessed vary from school to school, and most involve evaluating the applicant only in familiar areas. The resulting reality is that many students with mediocre orientation skills are accepted into guide dog training programs. Upon completion of training some students may feel confident in the mechanics of using their favored mobility aid, yet they realize that their orientation problems persist.

Guide dog handlers who also received insufficient adjustment training prior to obtaining their dogs may need additional instruction in Braille, computers, managing mail, and daily living skills. They may want to take advantage of some of the extracurricular activities that make the NFB program unique. They may even wish to brush up on cane skills and have the opportunity to refine their sense of direction and knowledge of streets and addresses, but without the worry and distraction of eroding their dog's training (and, in turn, their team's entire working relationship). Can we in good conscience deny a significant segment of our community these and other confidence-building benefits of our centers? Is it truly impossible to include those with limited travel needs while maintaining the excellence of the services we offer? The Federation has taken on more difficult challenges and succeeded.

It seems clear that O&A center staff need to consider how integration of guide dogs into the current program might be accomplished. It has been shown that the NFB approach to O&A training works--no one can dispute that. But I'm troubled by the notion that the curriculum in its present form must therefore be the only one that works. Integrating guide dog use into an existing travel program may not be an easy task, but developing a curriculum that effectively serves a diverse group of students rarely is. A good educator recognizes the importance of continually reevaluating instructional methods in accordance with student needs. I hope the staff of our excellent O&A centers have not lost sight of this fundamental principle.

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