Conquering College and Work
Leader Dog at Her Side
For Jackie to accomplish her job, her employer supplies her with special software (note the enlarged screen view on the monitor) and hardware such as a scanner and a monitor mount that allows Jackie to move the monitor close to her face. According to Zandra Odum, director of the Florida Abuse Hotline, these accommodations aren't out of the ordinary to her. "Anything that is in my control to adjust is not overwhelming," says Zandra, "It is my job as a manager to make sure that all employees have the best tools available and that they can do their jobs to the best of their ability. I make accommodations for all employees."
By most people's judgment, Jackie Bowman is successful. She's a happily married college graduate who spends her days helping others as a counselor for the Florida Abuse Hotline. She credits her ability to accept her blindness and to help others in part to her 17-year partnership with her Leader Dogs.
"I had a friend who had a Leader Dog and I followed him around because it was easier to walk behind him and his dog than to use my cane."
Jackie always knew she'd get a guide dog someday, but she kept waiting for the most appropriate time. Born with corneal dystrophy, a genetic, often progressive disease, Jackie became increasingly dependent on using a cane, and she didn't like it. That's when she decided to get her first Leader Dog, Alobar.
After spending much of her youth trying to hide her blindness, Jackie was pleasantly surprised when she began attending her community college classes with Alobar. "The first class we went to together was like a door opening for me. Everyone realized I had a disability and that maybe I could use some help," explains Jackie. "People reached out and assisted me in finding my new classrooms until Alobar and I could do it on my own and some of the students helped by reading some of the class materials to me. I even became the secretary of the disability student government group. I learned what I had been doing without because I hid my blindness so much."
Co-workers Suzanne Campbell, Matt and Jackie take a few minutes to discuss some of their recent calls. "I really admire Jackie," says Matt, "Watching her with her dog and working through her difficulties with her visual impairment. Jackie is a very impressive person and I admire her spunk and her desire to work hard and be a part of our community—even with all our differences."
After transferring to Florida State University to obtain a bachelor's degree in Social Work, Jackie found Alobar to be very beneficial, "Actually, beneficial is not the word for it. I don't think I could have done it without him," admits Jackie. "I was on my own for the first time and I had to do everything for myself." At FSU Alobar's favorite command was, "Let's go back to the air conditioning," and no matter where they were, he would lead Jackie back to the dorm.
"My first job search was very difficult."
Like most people, Jackie found the job interview process pretty hard, especially so when the interviewer was standoffish. "It would surprise me. I think it had to do with their misunderstanding of my disability and my capabilities; it wasn't the dog." As for Jackie, having Alobar by her side helped. "On a personal level," she says, "Having a guide dog makes me feel self assured, so it helped. It upped my confidence level before and during interviews." When Jackie finally received a phone call with a job offer, her initial reaction of, "Aren't you worried about me being blind?" received the quick response: "No, should I be?"
"Some of my co-workers like to think of my dogs as pet therapy."
As a counselor for the Florida Abuse Hotline, Jackie's job can be extremely stressful. Many of the other counselors take a moment to visit Jackie's current Leader Dog, Stella, after an intense phone call, such as helping someone who is suicidal. A minute of petting Stella (after asking permission first) can be a quick ministress reliever.
What do you think sighted people need to
know about people who are blind?
Jackie: "I guess the biggest thing is to just remember that we're all individuals and don't assume what we're capable of or not capable of until you find out. Just ask. And that as far as having a guide dog, there isn't anything better in this world. Especially a Leader Dog; they're the best."
Matt: "I would tell everyone to give people who are blind a shot because they will surprise you. Everyone deserves a fair chance. Jackie is one of the best counselors we have. She is great with the clientele and she really knows her stuff."
Zandra: "First, is the person qualified for the job? Second, remember that when the Leader Dog is at work, they're at work. No petting."
One co-worker, Matt Atchley, says he often forgets that Stella is in the cubicle next to him. "She's very well behaved, quiet and very friendly. She's a sweet dog." Though they've worked together for over a year, sometimes he is still surprised by Jackie and Stella's teamwork, like when Stella takes Jackie to the handicapped button of the exit door when they leave work. "I don't know if Leader Dog taught Stella that," Matt says, "or if Jackie did. But it's really great." This story makes Jackie laugh, "It's funny that he would find that interesting because she's just doing her job. My co-workers don't pay attention that Stella is always helping me through the office cubicles to the bathroom, to the break room, avoiding purses or chairs sticking out—she's always guiding me but people don't see that because they're so used to us— we've become so 'everyday' to them."