Tuesday, October 16, 2012
If you haven’t seen the young woman and her dog walking around town yet, you probably will.
Feel free to say hello – but don’t pet the dog. He’s working.
To meet Traci Farris, a pleasant, dark haired woman with a ready smile and an easy laugh, one would probably not immediately be aware that she is legally blind.
“The truth is, only about five percent of the visually impaired population are totally in-the- dark blind,” she said. “Most of us do not look like Ray Charles – and I’m not sure people realize that.”
Farris and Ginnis, her black Labrador retriever, have been practicing walking with each other for maybe a week or so, but the bond they have forged is deep. They are a team but move as one – as they should.
That is why no one is allowed to pet Ginnis – for Farris’ safety, he has to be focused at all times, and seeing a friend on the street could excite him and cause him to lose that focus and even pull her into an obstacle or worse.
“That’s one of the things we have to stress – no one is trying to be mean; it’s simply for Traci’s safety,” Farris’ trainer, Sue Abramovich said.
Farris’ odyssey into visual impairment caught her at unawares. Her condition, a genetic disorder known as Stargardt’s Disease, started when she was in her early 20s, and quickly progressed. By the time she was 26 years old she had to give up driving, she said.
“I can see things to the side of me, but I have no idea what you might look like,” she said. “This definitely changed my life.”
In Farris’ case, she has some peripheral vision and extremely blurred central vision, something like 20/2000; she also has blind spots, she said.
To make matters more challenging, she is the mother of a young daughter. This means her husband, David, has stepped up and taken on many responsibilities they used to be able to share, such as taking their daughter to school.
Farris decided to get help. She started researching options and found an organization that provides service dogs at no charge to the visually impaired, Southeastern Guide Dogs, of Palmetto, Florida. She was not only able to get a dog at no charge through Southeastern, but the organization also sent a trainer to Summerville to work with the two.
Abramovich noted that Farris and Ginnis bonded almost immediately and in fact have made remarkable progress in the space of about a week.
“The hardest thing about it, I think, was just letting go and learning to trust Ginnis,” Farris said.
Abramovich had a cure for that hesitation. The first time they worked together, Abramovich scattered a lot of loose objects around a small area – rakes, toys, clothes, whatever she could find -- and had Ginnis walk Traci through it. He did it without a hitch.
“I was amazed when I discovered just what we had done,” Farris said. “After that, no problem.
The dogs are taught to negotiate city streets curb to curb. They help the owner find each curb, even if they are not crossing the street, because the curb serves as a point of reference. The dog will stop in front of the handler when it reaches the curb; it also does similar alerts for finding doorways, stairs, even places to sit on the street.
The dogs are constantly focused on the area, searching out even overhanging obstacles such as hanging plants and flags, objects most people take for granted but could potentially cause an injury to someone who cannot see them, Abramovich said.
The dog is even trained to commit acts of “intelligent disobedience,” Abramovich said. That is, if the owner walks into the street and the dog sees danger, the dog will disobey the command to move forward and instead gently guide the owner back to safety.
“It is absolutely amazing,” Traci said, a smile lighting her face. “Ginnis is really a genius. He’s given me my life back.”
The dog will eventually be a fully integrated member of the family, indeed it plays with the Farris’ other dog now, but now, even Traci’s child cannot pet the dog, Abramovich said.
As it turned out, she was able to not only get a guide dog at no charge, the organization sent a trainer to Summerville to teach her how to work with her new friend.
“We usually have people come to us for training classes, and they will come for about a month,” Sue Abramovich, Farris’ trainer said. “However, we do home training as well and in this case it worked especially well. Traci is able to train at home, in her hometown, around places she is likely to frequent.”
Farris herself was very glad to be able to train at home rather than deal with complicated logistics of being away for a month.
Ultimately, Traci Farris says she wants to let people with visual impairments know that there are resources for help and most importantly, she wants the general public to see her -- indeed, all visually impaired people -- as a person, not a blind person.
“My condition does not define me,” she said. “It does make life interesting, but it does not define who I am.”