My coworkers and I recently had the pleasure of visiting Southeastern Guide Dogs’ Unseen Worlds.
I knew the experience would be neat, but I wasn’t prepared for its impact on my perspective of life with vision loss.
Teresa escorts us around Southeastern Guide Dogs’ expansive campus and guides us through Unseen Worlds.
First up, a virtual reality (VR) experience.
We enter a room designed to look like a city park. There are sounds of birds chirping. We see a mural of a city park in front of us and feel artificial grass under our feet.
In the middle of the room are six comfy chairs, one for each of us. The chairs swivel and spin, which proves useful in the VR experience.
Teresa gives us background on Southeastern Guide Dogs. We learn that they breed, birth, and train dogs on their campus, and they’re 100% donor supported.
After a few interesting facts, we’re given VR headsets and asked to put them on.
The program begins.
We hear an enchanting British gentleman begin to speak.
This isn’t just any gentleman. This is John M. Hull, an author and professor who lost his sight mid-life. John recorded an audio diary of life with vision loss on cassette tapes. This experience brought his voice to life.
We hear John describe an experience in a park. His narrative is accompanied by environmental noises and little blue dancing lights that give a glimpse of his descriptions.
It’s almost romantic… until it’s not.
Southeastern Guide Dogs was kind to ease us into this world of darkness and blue fireflies. But soon, the noises become overwhelming. It’s a form of sensory overload I haven’t ever experienced. I’ve always had sight to help process the noises I hear. That’s not the case right now.
My heartbeat rises, and I remind myself that this is an experience I can end at any time. The thought of people who can’t end this on a whim becomes overwhelming.
I know I don’t come close to truly understanding. However, this glimpse into a reality other than my own provides powerful insight I wouldn’t otherwise have.
The program finishes and my headset goes black. No more fireflies.
I can’t see anything, but I hear someone asking rhetorical but thought-provoking questions. The voice reminds us that we get to remove our VR headsets soon but many people don’t have this option.
The voice I heard was Suzy, an Ambassador in Southeastern Guide Dogs’ Outreach and Recruitment.
She gives the ok to remove our headsets and begins telling her story.
I would do Suzy a great disservice by trying to retell her story, but I will say it’s powerful. I laughed, nearly cried, and learned a lot.
If you get a chance, go to Southeastern Guide Dogs and talk to Suzy.
At Suzy’s feet lay her retired guide dog, Carson.
Carson is a 13-year-old, white-faced yellow labrador who spent most of his life guiding Suzy. Currently, this good boy is living his best life in retirement.
His purpose now? Getting love and attention from people like me.
Once Carson receives the okay, he takes his time greeting each person while getting scritches and praise from everyone in the room. This is what retirement is all about.
Our time with Suzy and Carson ends, and we make our way toward the next part of our Unseen Worlds experience.
Faith. What an aptly named guide dog.
This gentle black beauty looks up and cocks her head. I swear she’s asking the instructor, Lauren, if she really has to work with these clueless humans. That’s my own nervousness talking. Faith is too polite to ask such a question.
We share a passion – making the world more accessible for people with visual disabilities.
Accompanying Faith is our instructor, Lauren.
Lauren is incredibly knowledgeable and talked me through every step of my blindfolded journey. She spoke to each person before and after they had a chance to walk and shared valuable information.
I was so captivated by Faith, though, that I couldn’t pay attention to anything else and missed most of what Lauren said!
Being led by a guide dog was surreal.
The blindfold makes my world dark. My eyes are open, but I can’t see anything. It’s a strange sensation. My brain knows why I can’t see at this moment, but it’s still so weird.
Lauren gives me an idea of what to expect: the first few steps are awkward, keep pace with and trust the dog, and she’ll be by my side the whole time, unlike people who rely on guide dogs daily.
She instructs me to reach down, glide my hand down Faith’s back, and grab the harness handle.
Are you ready? she asks.
My heart is pounding out of excitement, anticipation, and slight fear. When was the last time I walked around with my eyes closed? Not since I was a kid and even then only for a few steps.
Ready, I say as confidently as I can to hide my jitters.
I know I can trust this dog. Logically I know that. Faith walks this path all the time and she’s undergone rigorous training to do what she does. She’s a pro. I know this. Plus, a sighted instructor is walking on the other side of Faith as a safety backup. There’s no reason to feel uneasy or unsafe. Still, something in me wants the feeling of control that sight brings.
We get to a dip in the pavement and Faith stops. Lauren explains that Faith stops when there’s something that could pose a threat to the person she’s guiding. It’s up to me to figure out if it’s safe to move forward. I feel around with my foot and locate the dip in the pavement. It’s very slight but stumble-worthy. I’m glad Faith stopped.
I find my footing and give the cue that I’m ready.
It’s strange and thoughts flood my mind. Am I walking in a straight line or veering in one direction or another? How am I supposed to hold my arm again? It’s supposed to be by my side. Is it by my side? Does faith know how uneasy I feel? She must, but she’s used to it. She’s teaching this clueless human. Thankfully she’s patient. It’s her purpose.
The walk comes to an end. It’s both longer and shorter than I expected. I take off my blindfold and look down to see Faith looking up and wagging her tail. It’s as if she’s saying, “Ya did good, kid.” I appreciate the encouragement, but we both know I was a hot mess out there.
My unforgettable time with Faith and Lauren come to an end. On to the next part of my day!
Need I say more?
Yes, I probably should.
I met future guide dog puppies! Two 7-week-old golden puppies came out to give snuggles and kisses.
Beyond their cuteness, I was in awe of knowing they will probably have an incredibly important purpose in their life.
Even if these pups don’t make it as guide dogs, they’ll most likely serve in some capacity.
Southeastern Guide Dogs works hard to find each dog’s purpose. For some, it’s guiding people through life. For others, it’s calming people who struggle with PTSD. The number of jobs a well-trained dog can hold is impressive. Each dog finds their best fit.
Like the end of any grand adventure, I found myself in the gift shop. (Unlike theme parks, you’re not forced into the gift shop. I sought it out.)
My experience was so incredible that I wanted to give them all my money! They’re 100% donor supported and I needed to contribute to that.
My budget protested, so I played it safe with a keepsake from their gift shop. It’s something that, when I see it, will remind me of the incredible day I had thanks to this extraordinary organization.
When you have a moment, check out Southeastern Guide Dogs and their fantastic work. Visit them with a campus tour, a multisensory experience called Beyond the Dark, or this incredible journey called Unseen Worlds.
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