Wallking in footsteps of the blind: Maureen retraces Mum's journey

Tanya Schleich, blindfolded to walk with the aid of guide dog, Odin, with trainer Eoin Slattery. Pic: Denis Minihan

IT was Nov 17, 1982, when my Mum, Maureen Fox, stood at the end of Academy Street to begin her blindfolded walk with guide dog, Goldie. This week, I stood in the same spot, and wondered whether Mum had been as nervous as I was.

Eoin Slattery, mobility instructor with the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, was with Mum that day, and he was also with me, on my walk with the handsome Odin and his trainer, Clionadh Ni Laoghaire.

I thought I knew Patrick Street well, but when the blindfold went on I felt disorientated and vulnerable.

Odin is advanced in his training and seemed happy to guide me along Patrick Street, and, although we had only just met, there was an instant sense of working together as a team.

I had complete trust that this wonderful dog would make sure that I would be OK. I can only imagine, even after this brief meeting, the bond between owner and dog, which I’m sure forms the moment that they meet and anticipate their future together.

When you lose one of your senses the others are heightened, and this seemed instant. The loud noise of the traffic mingled with the music from the shops. I tried hard to work out how far it was to the kerb, but Odin had it under control and made sure that I stopped at the junction and waited until it was safe to move forward.

Certainly, the pavements are much wider now then when mum embarked on her walk, but the challenges are just the same and it made me realise how important it is to think about the consequences of our actions as we rush about and take our sight for granted.

Obstacles, such as wheelie bins and scaffolding, cars parked up on the footpaths, uneven surfaces and loose paving stones, are hazards that guide dogs learn to carefully steer their owners around.

Odin coped well with my rather nervous commands and guided me slowly along the pavements, but, even in the short time that Odin and I were together, I realised the impact that these beautiful dogs have on the lives of a blind or visually impaired person. A price can never be put on the amazing gift of mobility and independence that these dogs give to people, not to mention their friendship and loyalty.

Odin, under the careful and watchful eye of his trainer, Clionadh, will soon be paired with a new owner. It takes time to ensure that the match is correct, but how lucky that person will be to have such a beautiful dog to guide them through their daily lives, and be their constant companion and friend.

It takes two years to train a guide dog, at a cost of €38,000, and the Irish Guide Dogs raise 80% of their income through fundraising. This year, 80 guide and assistance dogs will have been trained and matched with their owners and, next year, the plans are that this number will increase to 85.

Wallking in footsteps of the blind: Maureen retraces Mum's journey

Eoin Slattery also accompanied Tanya’s mother, Maureen Fox, and guide dog, Goldie, in 1982

Maureen would have been delighted that the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind is one of the charities that will benefit from the sale of her book.

A long-standing respect and love for these dogs, which started more than 30 years ago, will continue and her legacy will be remembered within this organisation.

* Maureen Fox — An Extraordinary Woman, will be available to buy from bookshops in Cork and nationwide, as well as online at www.maureenfoxbook.com, from Wednesday, Nov 27. Price €12.99. All proceeds go to charity. www.guidedogs.ie

A memorable blind date with Goldie

IT all started out as a light hearted exercise to illustrate just how good Cork trained guide dogs really are. It ended up for me as a frightening experience, one that has changed my attitude, once again, towards the blind.

Wallking in footsteps of the blind: Maureen retraces Mum's journey

Guide dog Goldie

I have always felt terribly sorry for people who are not sighted – a sympathy in many ways that is misplaced, judging by the laughter and camaraderie evidenced at their annual meeting. Now, however, my feeling is that of awe, that they cope with their disability so remarkably well and shame for us in a sighted community who care so little for the needs of the handicapped that we park cars on pavements and leave dustbins out in the middle of a pedestrian way.

Eoin Slattery from Dublin is a resident guide dog trainer in Cork and he did the formal introductions between Goldie and myself. Goldie was going to meet her new master last Saturday and they are undergoing some weeks training here in Cork.

Patrick Street, Cork was the venue arranged for my baptism of fire and knowing that area very well I was pretty confident. That is until the blindfold was put on and Goldie and I were on our own.

All too soon I was completely disorientated, the noise of the traffic was extremely loud and I felt totally vulnerable. Goldie is trained to such an extent that she would never cross the road except at the traffic lights, but even she was puzzled by the amount of road works taking place that necessitated us going out on to the street. The uneven pavements were hell, the kerbs and the cobble stones by Princes Street nearly finished me.

Strangely enough, even after such a very short time in this world of darkness, I was conscious of the heat coming from shops on my face, and I could sense a different noise when I came to a street junction. It illustrated to me how very keen the other senses of a blind person must be and what a godsend a guide dog really is.

It takes approximately four months to train a dog, thus making them proficient in any situation. Their working lifespan is ten years and in 1979 a trained dog costs £2,500 sterling. However, I soon realised that one cannot measure a guide dog in terms of money – they are the eyes of the blind, a constant companion and the means of total mobility.

The cost to a blind person for such a dog? A 50p registration fee and if they can afford it, a donation is gratefully received, but this is in no way mandatory.

By the end of this year twenty people will have been trained to use a guide dog in the Cork Centre. Age is no barrier either – owners range from 19 to 79.

It is a sobering exercise for anyone to put on a blindfold and with the help of a friend walk through the streets of Cork – you will find, as I did, that they are a nightmare.

Parking on the pavement is often done without thinking about the consequences for anyone who cannot see, or leaving large bins in the way of pedestrians. Our thoughtlessness can often cause extreme distress for the unsighted.

It was obvious during my stint that I was not blind, because I was walking so slowly but it did at least give me a small opportunity to visit the world of blackness. Goldie copes marvellously with my irregular commands, slowly but surely we crossed the pedestrian lights, but I didn’t know until I asked whether they were green or red. I wonder why we don’t have the ‘bleep’ system on all traffic lights. I have never noticed the need for them before.

As I write this, four people have now been matched to a dog and are undergoing training in Cork. After some weeks they will leave for their homes with their new companion – a dog who will open up new horizons of independence and experience. The work at the training centre for guide dogs can never be measured in money – but it is through your donations that they can breed and train more and more dogs so that the blind in our society can live full, interesting and rewarding lives.

* Maureen Fox’s article as it appeared on the Cork Examiner in November, 1982.


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