Twenty years ago, at the prime of her youth, Jill Anderson was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, an eye disease that can ultimately rob one of their eyesight. There is no cure. Slowly, Jill’s world was getting darker and darker. “I began to realise I couldn’t escape the inevitable,” she shares.
Jill grew helpless, more so because her everyday tasks were becoming impossible day by day. She would hit walls and injure herself trying to walk alone inside her own house. Dimly lit places would be a nightmare for her, so was meeting with acquaintances, as she failed to see and recognise their faces. She was gradually slipping into despair until Kirby came along.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
Kirby is one among many guide dogs of America, who are specially trained to assist visually-impaired individuals in their everyday life. Jill and Kirby are now inseparable, fondly nicknamed as Team Jirby.
Who are the guide dogs of America?
Over 70 years ago, Joseph Jones Sr. founded the association ‘Guide Dogs of America’ with an aim to aid visually-challenged persons with trained feline companions. Joseph himself lost his eyesight at 57 years of age. A dedicated dog-lover, Joseph was keen to get a dog for himself, but almost all the dog-training institutes rejected him outright for his ‘advanced age’. Joseph was determined, and out of his sheer zeal was born International Guiding Eyes in 1948, one of the first guide dog schools in the USA. And Joseph got his own guide dog Lucy, who stayed by his side till last breath.
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Later, in 1992, the organisation changed its name to Guide Dogs of America.
Presently, Guide Dogs of America (GDA) has their schools in USA and Canada, where puppies are trained to be a blind person’s best friend, and later handed over to a caring owner, completely free of charge.
How are these ‘good boys’ trained
The process of training at GDA is highly systematic and full-proof, and needless to say, heartwarming indeed. Hundreds of stories with the happiest endings have sprouted from the training workshops of GDA. Perhaps the best part about adopting a guide dog from GDA is that the potential owners are matched with the perfect dog for them, following a three-week-long training session involving both the willing adopters and the dogs.
At around eight weeks of age, the young puppies are taken home by GDA’s volunteer puppy raisers, where they are brought up to be ‘good boys’. The puppy raisers also expose them to a wide range of environments so that they can adapt easily anywhere in future. At eighteen months, the loving, laughing, spirited young dogs are brought back to the GDA centre, where formal guide dog instructors devote time to each and every dog, teaching them advanced commands. Ranging from overcoming diverse hurdles to identify life-threatening situations for a blind person, these dogs are trained in everything.
Meanwhile, the performance, behavioural pattern and energy levels of each dog are meticulously monitored and recorded, so that when the owners arrive, they are paired up with a pup best suited for them.
When the registered blind persons arrive at the GDA camp, they are teamed up with the dog which suits their personality best. Then they are asked to engage in immersive training with their respective guide dogs, to master the dos and don’ts for living together. In the end, the dogs are officially graduated and go to their forever homes.
There is probably not a single professional surfer who doesn’t recognise Derek Rabelo, the visually-impaired surfer. His inspiring story has been the subject of books and world-famous documentaries. While years of practice and passionate practice have made riding the waves a cakewalk for him, Derek would still struggle to walk on the streets or reach the beach every day on his own. This was until Derek’s wife Madeline surprised him with a proposal, to adopt a guide dog from GDA. Serenity, a yellow labrador who was paired to be Derek’s guide dog, is equally dynamic in spirit.
“Serenity knows I want to go there when we go back. She gives me much more freedom and mobility to go where I want to go. She gives me a lot of confidence, and I trust her. Our relationship is growing every day,” Derek cannot hide his excitement about adopting Serenity, as he shared in the GDA blog, abuzz with more such heartwarming stories.
Blind dogs are getting their own guide dogs
Recently, visually-challenged New York resident Thomas Panek became the world’s first blind man to finish a half-marathon. However, Waffle, Westley and Gus, his super-efficient guide dogs, deserve 50% of the credit for his victory, as the trio of Labrador Retrievers helped him cover the 21 km race.
Guide dogs are perhaps not only for humans, as proved by blind Dachshund Dozer and guide dog OZ, a pit bull. Same is the story of 11-year-old Charlie from South Carolina, a Golden Retriever who lost his eyes to glaucoma. That’s when Maverick came in, a trained pup which soon became Charlie’s best friend and sole companion.
Efforts For Good take
Keeping a service dog is quite different from adopting a normal pet dog, owing to the long list of regulations to be stringently followed. Still, in the USA, the number of service dogs are growing rapidly. People with visual impairment, physical disabilities, epilepsy and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) generally opt for service dogs to be their unfailing companion through thick and thin. Guide dogs of America belong to the first of the categories mentioned above, and their numbers are also on a steady increase.
GDA is completely financed from public donations and fundraising, where people contribute generously for giving these guide dogs the best training facilities.
While technology is dedicated to making life easier for the visually-challenged, guide dogs are resolved to provide them with wholesome companionship and being a 24×7 friend.
A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.
My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.
About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss.
My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.
However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.
Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.
As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.
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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed.
This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.
What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation.
Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.
Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds.
Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma?
First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.
Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB?
The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment.
Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.
A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.