NIU Today – Orientation and Mobility students travel to experience The Seeing Eye guide dogs

NIU Today – Orientation and Mobility students travel to experience The Seeing Eye guide dogs

NIU Visual Disabilities students visited The Seeing Eye in New Jersey.

Road trip! NIU Visual Disabilities students (from left) Nathan Metzinger, Gretchen Ivers, Kat Mackenzie, Gabby Vargas, Tani Vincent and Grace Townsend visited The Seeing Eye in New Jersey.

Six Orientation and Mobility majors in NIU’s Visual Disabilities program traveled to Morristown, New Jersey, in April to visit The Seeing Eye, Inc.

The philanthropic organization strives to enhance the independence, dignity and self-confidence of people who are blind or visually disabled.

Its work includes breeding, raising and training puppies to become guide dogs and instructing people in the proper use, handling and care of the animals.

Molly Pasley, an assistant professor in the Department of Special and Early Education, calls the all-expenses-paid trip “one of those life-changing experiences that we wanted to give our students because we so value that experiential learning.”

“When I was doing my master’s degree at NIU, I had gone out to the Seeing Eye,” says Pasley, who accompanied the students.

Molly PasleyMolly PasleyMolly Pasley
Molly Pasley

“But then there was a bit of a hiatus, where the Seeing Eye had done more of the traveling out to universities instead of bringing students to them,” she adds, “and when they said they had funding to pay for students from different university programs to come on one trip a month, we immediately were like, ‘Get us on the list. We want to come.’ ”

Students first were told to shelve their notions of guide dogs.

Unlike white canes that act as obstacle-detectors, Pasley says, guide dogs serve as obstacle-avoiders.

“A lot of times, we assume that we know things about guide dogs. We think that they are ones who tell us where to go, but that is not the case,” Pasley says.

“Guide dogs are there to help you avoid obstacles and use what’s called intelligent disobedience. If you’re going to give them the command to ‘Go forward’ while there is a turning vehicle, they are taught to stop you from going so that you don’t get hit by a car,” she adds. “You – the traveler – still are responsible for making the decisions about when to cross streets, where to go and how to get there.”

Grace Townsend and Gabby VargasGrace Townsend and Gabby VargasGrace Townsend and Gabby Vargas
Grace Townsend and Gabby Vargas

Traveler Grace Townsend enjoyed the trip.

“The best thing I saw in New Jersey was observing individuals who use a guide dog walking along a route in downtown Morristown,” says Townsend, who is from suburban Lombard. “This allowed me as a student in Orientation and Mobility to see the bond a guide dog has with their owner and how much they really help them.”

NIU students also had the chance to “immerse ourselves in the process and guide dog experience,” she adds.

“We were even able to go under blindfold and travel with a guide dog, which leads me to why this opportunity helps for our future careers because of the hands-on experience we received,” Townsend says. “Much like in class at NIU, where we are blindfolded to work with the white cane, with this trip we were able to experience being blindfolded for guide dog travel.”

Classmate Gabby Vargas, who currently works as a teacher of the visually impaired, appreciated her visit to The Seeing Eye “because they play a crucial role in enhancing independence and quality of life for individuals with visual impairments.”

Grace Townsend practices with a dog.Grace Townsend practices with a dog.Grace Townsend practices with a dog.
Grace Townsend practices with a dog.

“I really enjoyed listening to the panel of previous graduates and learning about their experiences with their dog guides,” says Vargas, who is from Bloomingdale. “They discussed both positive and difficult moments with their dogs, as well as the training experience that both the dogs and graduates had to complete.”

Vargas “was also able to gain insight into the training process for dog guides and the rigorous standards these dogs must meet to become reliable companions,” she adds.

“Witnessing firsthand the dedication of the staff and the incredible bond between the dog guides and their handlers was truly an amazing experience,” she says. “The knowledge I gained from The Seeing Eye will allow me to incorporate techniques and approaches into my practice that will allow my students to navigate the world confidently and independently.”

Pasley confirms the value-added component of April’s expedition.

“When the Seeing Eye comes out to schools, they typically do a full-day training, but it’s very different because our students are in Graham Hall. They’re not getting to see where the instruction takes place,” she says. “Yes, they get to meet a dog, but getting the opportunity to travel with a dog and seeing the impact on people’s lives is only available in New Jersey.”

Other students on the trip were Gretchen Ivers, Kat Mackenzie, Nathan Metzinger and Tani Vincent.

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