Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Texas man to become one of nation's first blind mobility instructors

From the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel in Texas:

NACOGDOCHES, Texas -- Joel Lawson may be partially blind, but he isn't without vision -- a vision to guide and teach others who are without the gift of sight.
Lawson, who graduated from Stephen F. Austin on Dec. 13, will soon begin a new certification program in which he will be one of the first visually impaired people in the nation to become an orientation and mobility instructor, where he will help others with visual impairments learn how to use white walking canes or guide dogs.

But it's not only Lawson who deserves the credit for his accomplishment. His guide dog, Tucker, is along for the journey. (Both are pictured.)

Although there are visually impaired people who teach orientation mobility, many of them use canes instead of guide dogs, Lawson said.

"To our knowledge, we are one of the first guide dog teams to do this," he said.

Lawson, who lost the majority of his vision at the age of 16 due to a degenerative disease called retinitis pigmentosa, graduated with a bachelor of science degree in rehabilitation services, and a double minor in history and orientation mobility.

"Nobody else in my family has (retinitis pigmentosa)," he said. "It's just the luck of the draw. For some, it's something that might not progress until they're 80. And for some folks like myself, it slowly progresses over time."

He has already been accepted into an SFA graduate program where he will get a master's degree in special education with an emphasis in orientation mobility.

As a certified orientation and mobility instructor, Lawson said his goal is to work with students in a school-district setting to help them "be as mobile and independent as they want to be or need to be."

"I'll be helping students with visual impairments or who are blind," he said, "whether that's with helping them use a white cane or a dog. I'm really looking forward to it."

Lawson, 23, said he decided to take the necessary steps to become an orientation mobility instructor for a number of reasons.

"(I) have always known about the field," he said. "When I was in public school in College Station ISD, I received the services that I would be doing for students. I have always known that I wanted to help folks. It was just deciding what I wanted to do."

After changing his major several times, Lawson focused on doing something that would allow him to make a difference.

"I went to a conference this past April and met a couple of folks there who are orientation mobility specialists," he said. "However, they don't use dogs. They use canes."

Lawson hopes students will be able to relate to him because of his impairment, but he does recognize that it can be "a blessing and a curse," he said.

"It depends on how you look at it," he said. "I look at it as a blessing in the terms of how it's going to positively serve students. I think that it will allow them to see that there is someone else who is visually impaired who has successfully made it."

He said it would be good for his students' parents to see a visually impaired person who is successful and who had to overcome many obstacles.

"If nothing else, I think that just having certain types of experiences that will be fairly similar to most students will help them," he said.

Lawson also recognizes that his position will come with challenges.

"Within any field, you always come across problem solving ... and I like that type of the job," he said. "You have the idea that you want to help people become as independent as (they) want to be or need to be, but with that comes different personalities and circumstances to the situation. I like the idea of trying to figure out how to help the person with the visual impairment with their particular situation."

He first received orientation and mobility instruction when he was about 12-years-old, Lawson said. He used a white cane from about 15-years-old until he was 21.

"At around the age of 21, I got Tucker," he said, referring to the five-year-old black Labrador that guides him to and from his daily activities.

Although Lawson is not completely blind, his vision is very limited, and that is why Tucker is his partner, he said.

"I have light perception and some contrast," he said. "The contrast would be is that I could tell you that (Tucker) has a light contrast on a dark contrast, because he has this yellow harness on his black body. And the only reason I know what those colors are, is because somebody told me.

"If you've ever gotten out of a shower and it's very foggy, that's what I see. That's how it is in my eyes. It's just very foggy. There are constant lights that flash. I'm constantly seeing this light show in my eyes. Being able to read is out of the question."

Because of that, Lawson said he knew that having a guide dog as a partner is something he needed for independence and security.

"With a white cane, the margin of error you have is 10 or 15 percent," he said. "So that means about 85 percent of the time if you're using that cane properly, you're going to protect yourself. However, there's that 15 percent when you're going to run into something. With a dog, that goes down to where it's 1 to 5 percent.

"With a cane, when you go into a crowd of people, unless you still have some vision, you're not going to be able to navigate yourself around without running into people on accident. With a dog, when I go into a group of people, he's going to navigate me around everyone ... Whenever you have a guide dog, they walk on your left and they cover everything on your right."

Having Tucker, whom he describes as "spoiled rotten" is also a good ice breaker when he meets people, Lawson said.

"It's a good ice breaker with people rather than a cane, because a cane is an inanimate object," he said. "I've always been a fairly social person."

While Tucker understands when it is playtime, he also understands when it is time to work, Lawson said.

"When he's on the harness, it's behavior modification to where he knows it's work," he said. "When you take him off his harness, what you notice is he's just a big baby."

Tucker has a few more years in which he will serve as a guide dog. After that, he will retire.