President Michael D Higgins and wife Sabina yesterday visited the headquarters and training centre of Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind in Cork to mark the organisation’s 40th anniversary year.
The visit was a celebration of the accomplishments of the charity in its 40 years of existence and an opportunity to recognise their community of supporters who have made this possible.
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane was also on hand to mark the occasions. A dog lover, he has supported the organisation’s annual Shades fundraising campaign since 2003.
There was more than one Higgins at yesterday’s ceremony.
Accompanying Léan Kennedy, the charity’s advocacy and policy co-ordinator, was her guide dog, who shares a surname with the President.
“People have started nicknaming me First Lady because of my guide dog Higgins,” said Léan, who became legally blind at the age of 13 from a rare eye condition known as cone-rod dystrophy.
“I was legally blind but still able to get around without a cane or a guide dog until, 10 years later, I had retinal detachments while studying Public Relations at UCC. Overnight, my vision dropped to 5%.”
Now with less than 3% sight remaining, Higgins helps Léan to leave a full life.
“I can live life without limits,” she said. “Having Higgins means I can walk to work, get to Dublin for meetings and socialise with friends with his help. I was a year waiting for him as my previous dog got sick and during that time I was completely dependent on everyone around me.
“The key thing for me is that I am a fairly fast walker and I needed a dog who could keep up with me. I now have my life back and I’m looking forward to the future.”
The President highlighted the multitude of people who have benefitted from the vital work of the Irish Guide Dogs for The Blind and its reputation as a trusted national organisation.
“Through your hard work and commitment you have helped to instil in many citizens living with disabilities the expectation that they too can succeed, can aspire to live the life of their choice, have their voices heard, their talents respected and be defined by their skills and abilities and all of their possibilities,” he said.
As well as meeting Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind president and co-founder Jim Dennehy, the President addressed an audience of more than 400 people including staff, vision-impaired clients, families of children with autism clients, their volunteer community, and Roy Keane, patron of the Irish Guide Dogs.
He recognised “the significant amount of time and commitment from Roy Keane and his fellow generous volunteers that have been the backbone of the association since its foundation”.
President Higgins and Sabina attended a demonstration of working dogs skills from their Early Training Unit and buried a time capsule of working dog-related memorabilia in the charity’s Reflection Garden. This was followed by a display of canine skills with guide dog owner John Shanahan and instructor Cliodhna Ní Laoighaire.
Padraig Mallon, CEO of Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, said it was a huge honour to have the President visit.
“We are hugely honoured to have the President join with our co-founder and president Jim Dennehy, patron Roy Keane, our clients, volunteers, our board, and staff in celebrating 40 years of support for people who are vision impaired and families of children with autism,” he said.
“Great organisations are made by great people and, in our case, great dogs.”
‘My work as goat farmer would be impossible without Izzy’
Ed Harper is a bit of a character — and so is his dog.
Born in 1948, the folk singer and goat farmer grew up near Manchester in Britain.
At the age of 11 months, he developed measles and lost the sight in one of his eyes. When he was three, he became blind in his other eye due to trauma caused by a scissors. Ed attended boarding schools, before going on to study social sciences in university. He then became a sociology teacher and decided to apply for a guide dog.
“The difference a guide dog made to my independence is amazing. I have greater confidence to travel and visit new places,” he says.
Having always had a keen interest in goat farming and being a frequent visitor to Cape Clear, Ed bought several acres of land and moved to Cape Clear in 1979.
Over the years, Ed has had six guide dogs from Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind. He trained with his current guide dog, Izzy, in 2007.
“Izzy is an excellent guide whether working in the city or the country,” he says. “My work as a goat farmer would be impossible without her.”
‘Holly allows me to do what I want with total independence’
Donnacha McCarthy, from Drimoleague, Co Cork, suffered a rapid loss of sight at age 10 following a battle with leukaemia, leaving him in total darkness within a matter of weeks.
He began working with Irish Guide Dogs as a teenager, learning to use the long cane and independent living skills as part of the organisation’s Child Mobility Programme.
Because of this, Donnacha was always aware of the positive experiences of other guide dog owners and that convinced him to join the waiting list for a guide dog soon after he was eligible.
Since being matched with Holly in 2008, Donnacha says his life has been transformed: “She allows me to do what I want with total independence, be that going to work every day, going to the gym or something as simple as going for a walk. I can safely say she has been the best aid I’ve had since losing my sight.”
With Holly’s help, Donnacha moved from Cork to Dublin and took up full-time work. He’s also a member of the Blind Football Ireland squad and regularly trains in Dublin, with Holly waiting patiently on the sidelines.
‘Before I got a guide dog I was totally dependent on others’
Joe Bollard has been blind for the last 77 years, following an operation at the age of two.
“I don’t mind being blind as I never recall being able to see. When I proposed to my wife I said: ‘I’m blind and a musician, that’s as bad as it’s going to get!’”
For most of his life, he always relied on others to help him get around. Despite being a talented piano player and touring around Ireland and America, until 1975, he had never been out by himself. He tried using a long cane but never felt safe.
“I was a danger to myself and others,” Joe says.
However, a visit from a school friend in the 1970s changed everything. Joe’s friend had a guide dog and he was amazed at the independence it gave him. In 1975 Joe applied to Irish Guide Dogs and was matched with Adam.
“Before I got a guide dog, life was OK. I was totally dependent on others. Now life is incredible. I enjoy nothing more than leaving the house first thing every day and strolling to Bray harbour.”
Joe now works with his fifth guide dog, York, and still appreciates the freedom a guide dog provides.
‘Jamie is so happy with his pal Daisy and so confident’
Life was very different for the McGrath family before they met assistance dog, Daisy. Jamie, 11, has autism and, with a family of six, it was difficult for his mother, Christine, to manage.
“You have to meticulously plan everything for a child with special needs,” Christine says.
“We were so limited in going out. Jamie bolted a lot and safety was a huge issue. It got to the stage where we just stopped trying.”
Jamie had been on the waiting list for three years before being matched with Daisy in the summer of 2013. After a successful matching visit and training week at Irish Guide Dogs Headquarters, Daisy was ready to go home to the McGrath household.
The difference in all their lives has been astounding. Only six months after Daisy joining the McGrath family, they are now all able to go out together for meals or on other days out, without worrying about Jamie.
“I don’t even think about going out anymore,” Christine says.
“Jamie is so happy with his pal Daisy and so much more confident.
“It was worth the wait. We now have a fabulous dog.”
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