As featured in The CEO Magazine, October 2014, page 113. For more info visit theceomagazine.com.au. By Ron Hooton, CEO Vision Australia.
There is no way to understand a person’s perspective other than to walk a mile in their shoes.
Imagine going about your daily routine without being able to see. Public outings become daunting, and crowded places can be overwhelming.
As part of my induction in January 2013 as CEO of Vision Australia, I undertook an exercise that gave me a glimpse into a world without vision. Wearing a pair of blackened-out glasses and partnered with a Seeing Eye Dog, I walked the streets of Melbourne. It was terrifying, confronting, and incredibly stressful to navigate my way around without being able to see. Despite my initial anxiety, having a Seeing Eye Dog to support me was both reassuring and comforting. He led me to pedestrian crossings, knew when to stop at a road crossing, and when to disobey instructions if it was unsafe to proceed.
For just one hour, I entrusted my life to this Seeing Eye Dog and gained a small insight into some of the challenges that over 33,000 Vision Australia clients face every single day. For them, taking off the blackened-out glasses is just not an option.
Seeing Eye Dogs is a division of Vision Australia, and is committed to improving the quality of life for Australians who are blind by providing them with a Seeing Eye Dog at no cost.
To be blind or to have low vision can be very isolating, and it is rewarding to see the change in people’s confidence when they are partnered with a Seeing Eye Dog. Busy places are no longer confronting and tasks that we take for granted in our everyday lives, such as supermarket shopping and catching public transport, become much easier thanks to the Seeing Eye Dog.
No price can be placed on independence. The cost of breeding and training a Seeing Eye Dog is $35,000, and they are provided at no cost to Seeing Eye Dogs' clients. Like many not-for-profit organisations, our Seeing Eye Dogs operations are maintained through the generosity and goodwill of others by way of donations from the community, corporate sponsorships, and bequests.
Every step of a Seeing Eye Dog’s life is strategically planned to optimise the prospects of a puppy becoming a working dog. Breeding dogs are carefully selected to produce litters of puppies that are free of hereditary diseases such as arthritis and eye problems.
Community-based volunteer ‘puppy carers’ kindly donate their time and their homes to raise each puppy for up to 12 months. Puppy carers are integral to the development of the puppy, teaching basic commands and providing them with valuable environmental exposure and socialisation. The pups go everywhere with their carer, from school or work, to shopping centres and sporting events. This allows them to become confident in a wide range of environmental settings. When the pups are around 12 months of age, they return to Seeing Eye Dogs to commence a six-month intensive, advanced training program with a highly qualified and specialised instructor.
Seeing Eye Dogs are paired with their clients based on personality and lifestyle. This matching process considers age and walking pace as well as working and living environments. For example, a younger person who walks at a fast pace and is highly active is matched with a Seeing Eye Dog that displays similar traits. It takes around four weeks for the individual and their Seeing Eye Dog to begin to work effectively as a team. As we are a national organisation, our clients travel from all over Australia to be matched with their Seeing Eye Dog. As part of our service, we also provide them with accommodation to ensure they are near the facility and that there is no additional financial pressure of finding accommodation for the four weeks.
Seeing Eye Dogs’ new National Training and Puppy Centre in Kensington, Victoria, allows us to triple our supply of Seeing Eye Dogs and to reduce wait times for clients from two years to just six months. Funded purely by donations, including a $1-million grant from EFTPOS, this $8-million, state-of-the-art facility includes a public viewing platform—a first in Australia—and one of only three in the world; 24-hour climate control; CCTV cameras for remote monitoring; and a rehabilitation pool. There are also extensive measures in place to minimise illness. The facility contains isolation and computer-controlled dispensers that sterilise the area to manage disease outbreaks.
Janet Etchells was matched with her Seeing Eye Dog Fergie in 2012, and describes her as ‘a friend, companion, and perfect match’. Janet is 99 per cent blind and has had a Seeing Eye Dog since she was 16 years old. She is a truly remarkable woman, hiking Mt Kilimanjaro in 2009 and, just last year, completing a 10 day trek across the Great Wall of China. She has never let her lack of vision get in the way of achieving her goals and, thanks to Fergie, is living her life to the fullest every single day.
With sight issues in Australia on the rise, Vision Australia’s Seeing Eye Dogs division needs the support of the community more than ever to allow us to continue to provide our valuable services to people who are blind or have low vision, so they can live a life of independence and confidence.
For more information on Seeing Eye Dogs, visit sed.visionaustralia.org or call 1800 03 77 73.