The Road to Independence

By Jennifer Wilkinson

Published in: Update - Issue 2 - 2012 »    Listen to Article ♫
Sheila walking with Leader Dog Grandt

When you have a disability, Sheila explains,
"There's always this thought in the back of
your mind that you might be a burden.
[Traveling independently] really just gives
me a better feeling about me. I have more
respect for myself."

There are plenty of challenges to face on the journey toward goals like a college education, marriage and family, and fulfilling work. Now try to imagine what that journey would look like if you literally could not see what was ahead of you.

Sheila Rousey is no stranger to the importance of being independent. She was born with congenital cataracts, which can often be corrected with surgery, but medicine in the late 50s was not what it is now and her operation was unsuccessful. By the age of twelve, she only had partial sight in one eye. Nevertheless, Sheila attended public school with her siblings, none of whom shared her visual impairment. "My parents made no special arrangements for me," Sheila recalls.

After graduating from high school, Sheila got married and began an unusual job—she worked for a casket company. Not planning to line caskets for the rest of her life, however, Sheila began to look for another job, but she encountered some resistance from people focusing on her visual impairment.

For Sheila, this was a roadblock, not a dead end, and she decided to change tactics. She enrolled at a local community college and continued her education at Clemson University. She emerged with a master's degree in special education. After graduation, she was invited to return to Clemson to work toward a doctorate as well. At the time, though, Sheila's limited mobility skills presented a problem because the classes were spread farther apart on campus. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I can't cross all these streets!' It's a very busy campus," she says, "It was my fear of something so simple as not being able to cross streets." So she turned the opportunity down.

Sheila practicing her orientation and mobility skills

Sheila conquered her fear of crossing the
street during AMP training with the help of
O&M Instructor Sarah Johnson.

Sheila's next decision was to become more mobile. She enrolled in the Accelerated Mobility Program (AMP) at Leader Dog, and the experience changed her life. "Before," she says, "I would go out when it was convenient for [my family] to go. I'd work around their schedules." With her new orientation and mobility skills, her travel options and opportunities expanded. "Now, I'll just say, 'I'm going to CVS,' and they'll say, 'I'll go with you,' and I'll say 'No, you don't need to.'"

Sheila's improved cane travel skills impacted more than her family. She teaches Braille to adults age 55 and older. Sometimes she holds meetings in a community setting to reach multiple people at once; other times, Sheila will visit her clients in their homes. Before AMP, Sheila only worked locally. Now, she has expanded her travel range and can work with many more people.

The importance of teaching Braille goes further than simply providing people with a reading skill. "When you're visually impaired and elderly, your kids don't know what to do with you," Sheila says. Learning Braille is part of what enables her clients to maintain their independence. "It helps to keep them doing the things they've always done and to keep them out of a nursing care facility."

Leader Dog Grandt running across grass

Leader Dog Grandt letting everyone know
sometimes a dog just needs to be a dog!

AMP was not the end of Sheila's journey to independent travel. During training, she knew she would be back someday for a guide dog. In February of this year, she returned to Leader Dog's campus to meet her new travel aid: a golden retriever named Grandt.

With Grandt at her side, the door to brand new experiences opened once again. Sheila had never been to a mall in her life before her instructor, Debbie, took her and Grandt to one for training. Debbie explained the shape of the mall, then she stepped back to let Sheila and Grandt explore on their own. Grandt safely guided Sheila through the entire shopping center and brought her back to the table where they had started in the food court. Sheila was delighted with Grandt's skills, saying "Every time he does something like that, I just love him a little bit more!"

Sheila couldn't wait to take Grandt home, and her family couldn't wait for them to get there. Her husband and daughter went to a pet store to prepare for Grandt's arrival, and her husband also built a relief area with pea gravel just like at Leader Dog. "I had to calm them down a little," Sheila laughs. Of her husband, she says, "He was a bit excited!"

Even while Sheila was still at Leader Dog for training, she was already making plans for her future with Grandt. She is a member of the Toccoa Lions Club and for the first time, she intends to take part in a week-long Lions camping trip. "In the past, I was scared to go," she says, "I didn't have that feeling of independence. Now that seems funny; why not just do it?"

Sheila cleaning her pool while Leader Dog Grandt looks on

Always wanting to be helpful, Grandt "supervises"
Sheila as she hooks up the hose to clean her pool.

That feeling of independence is one she plans to share. Sheila wants to be an example to her clients by showing them that life doesn't have to be limited by vision loss, or anything else for that matter. "My clients are at an age where we're not young people, we're not old people," she says, "You can't think you don't have choices because you're a certain age. You do have choices. As long as you're willing, you always have the choice to be independent."