By Katie Rose Turlik
Montgomery College’s Germantown campus had a special visit on October 29: Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit organization that pairs visually impaired men and women with service dogs, came to say hello.
The goal of Guiding Eyes’ pairings is to offer people greater freedom and security. The event was for National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), celebrated every October. The purpose of this campaign is to raise awareness of the issues surrounding the employment of people with disabilities and salute the many ways people with disabilities have contributed to society.
This movement began back in 1945 when Congress passed a law regarding the first week of every October as “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” “Physically” was excluded from the title in 1962 as a way to recognize people will all types of disabilities. By 1988 the campaign was lengthened to a month, with its new title becoming “National Disability Employment Awareness Month.”
NDEAM has been led by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) since 2001.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s mission for their visit was to introduce and explain the organization’s purpose, as well as give a chance for people to meet a select group of puppies in training. The program raises puppies from as young as eight months old. It is at this time that puppies of several breeds, most often Labrador Retrievers and occasionally Golden Retrievers or German Shepherds, are temporarily adopted by puppy raisers.
Puppy raisers include large families, couples, young adults, and senior citizens. These puppies are raised as house pets so they can be raised in many different types of homes including townhomes and apartments. The job of these raisers is to provide the young dogs with food, medical care and plenty of love.
These puppies are raised between 12 and 16 months before being assigned to a guide dog instructor. The puppies are trained at a minimum of five months.
The training process involves teaching the dogs complex skills needed for a future as a guide dog. These skills include walking with their blind companion at the correct speed and distance, traveling on public transports and declining commands that may lead their companion into danger, such as a busy street.
If the dog passes the training program they will be matched with an appropriate blind student. The matching process involves pairing a dog with a student based on certain criteria such as their size and typical walking speed. Once provided with a dog, the new owners take their furry companions home. Many of the dogs that do not pass the training program are adopted. Other dogs are used for breeding.
Despite its name, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, does not only provide services for the blind. Dog companions are also paired with children on the Autism spectrum. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by social and communication impairments. These specially trained service dogs help keep children from wandering away from their families, decrease their stress levels and support them emotionally. Service dogs offer children with Autism love and companionship, as well as a great sense of security.
One of Montgomery College’s own students offered The Globe some words on his experience working with his own service dog. His name is Justin Valenti, a graphic design major with interests in drumming and photography.
At a young age, Justin was diagnosed with Autism, but he hasn’t let any obstacles get in his way. He in the works of creating and leading a club on campus that will create opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to meet new people and create lasting friendships.
During his elementary school years, Justin was paired with a golden retriever named Jake through the nonprofit organization Dog Ears and Paws Inc.
After meeting Jake, Justin decided the name Buddy would be an even better fit for his new friend. With a little repetition Jake became Buddy and a perfect match for Justin. Justin said, “[Buddy] calmed my anxiety when I had to cross the street. He was someone to talk to. He was my friend.”
Buddy passed away last year at the age of 11. Valenti added his final comment, “Buddy was very special to me.”
This is what service animals especially provide, love and friendship. These programs give incredible people, like Justin Valenti, an opportunity to overcome whatever hurdles their disabilities may bring them and truly live.
For more information, please go to guidingeyes.org