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Vickroy: Guiding knight: Lab gets woman where she needs to go

Solomguide dog leads way as Kathy Austwho is visually impaired negotiates crowd commuters pedway her way work Chicago Illinois Wednesday

Solomon the guide dog leads the way as Kathy Austin, who is visually impaired, negotiates the crowd of commuters in the pedway on her way to work in Chicago, Illinois, Wednesday, May 8, 2013. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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For more information on guide dogs, visit www.guidedogs.com or call (800) 295-4050.

For more information on Second Sense, visit second-sens.org or call Austin at (312) 236-8569.

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Updated: June 20, 2013 4:23PM



Up concrete stairs, around giant flowerpots and through throngs of bustling commuters, Kathy Austin makes her way to work each morning.

Though she is virtually blind, only able to distinguish contrasts of light and dark, she makes getting from her home in the leafy suburb of Homewood to her office on the 10th floor of a Loop high rise look easy, partly because she has Solomon to guide her, partly because she doesn’t let much stop her from pursuing her dreams.

“Going blind is the only horrible thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says.

“It’s just one of those things. At times it gets tough and I have a pity party, but it is what it is and if you wallow in it, your life won’t be any better,” she said.

So she doesn’t wallow.

In fact, she embraces life. She works full time, is a mother, a runner, a certified master gardener and a member of Homewood’s senior advisory council.

“I want people to know there is life after blindness,” she said.

Daily commute

Austin is not deterred by the whoosh of a passing express train while she waits on the platform at 183rd Street. She is not annoyed at the occasional bump or nudge from fellow commuters as they rush to their destinations. And she pays no attention to the overhead signs directing her through Chicago’s Randolph Street Station into the Pedway and out onto Michigan Avenue.

She has Solomon, a confident, steady 6-year-old yellow Lab who is so smart he is able to practice “intelligent disobedience” if he disagrees with Austin’s all-clear sign to proceed.

“He’s very smart,” said Austin, 56.

Only 50 percent of dogs that go through a guide dog program — mostly Labrador and golden retrievers — make it to completion, she said. In addition to being able to navigate, they have to have a temperament that enables them to withstand crowds and traffic noises. They also must be capable of identifying possible threats, such as a falling tree branch, overhead scaffolding or a wayward automobile.

They are expensive to train, $50,000 to $70,000, but if secured through a nonprofit group, the cost to the handler can be minimal, if anything. By law, guide dogs can go anywhere a seeing person can go, including inside government buildings and on airplanes.

Austin and Solomon have been taking the Metra Electric Line for so long that many people recognize and greet them. Conductor Casey Ziolkowski checks in on them regulalry.

Solomon not only escorts Austin to her job as community engagement specialist at Second Sense, a nonprofit that helps the visually impaired, he helps her garden and he goes on shopping trips to Macy’s, where a personal shopper selects Austin’s outfits.

A guide dog, she said, led Michael Hinkston down 87 floors of the World Trade Center to safety on Sept. 11, 2001.

Still, she knows they are not for everybody.

“For me, it’s more about the graceful travel a guide dog provides,” she said. “It’s like holding someone’s hand. It gives you extra balance and will guide you around obstacles.”

There are disadvantages, of course. For one, guide dogs need care. They must be fed, groomed and taken out regularly. They can get sick and require veterinary care. They also need attention.

“They work for praise,” she said.

George Motzer attended a recent workshop Austin gave on guide dogs at Orland Reformed Church. The 76-year-old has retinitis pigmentosis. He was told, though, that he would not be a good candidate for a dog because he was too independent and likely wouldn’t let the dog lead.

Solomon is Austin’s second guide dog. Her first, Jethro, has been retired from the job and now lives with Austin and her husband, Bryan, as the family pet.

Into the night

Austin was 24 and a newlywed when she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosis, a hereditary condition that causes progressive blindness.

“It was devastating,” she said. Her ophthalmologist told her she’d be blind by 40, to do whatever she wanted to do, see whatever she wanted to see, now.

By 28, she couldn’t drive anymore. But she resisted using a cane. When she began bumping into things, people wondered if she’d been drinking.

She eventually quit her job and stayed home to raise her daughter, Missy, and son, Bryan Jr.

Her children, she said, always have been accepting of her condition because they don’t know her any other way.

“I tried really hard to let them do everything all the other kids did, only I couldn’t be the carpool mom,” she said. And because Bryan often put in long days at his meat distributor job, “The kids had to get rides from their friends, or ride their bikes.”

When Bryan Jr. was in kindergarten, Austin enrolled at Prairie State College because she lives just four blocks from Halsted, where she could catch the bus directly to campus.

After earning an associate’s degree, she transferred to Roosevelt University in the Loop. That’s when she got her first guide dog.

“We would walk home from the train station and I felt like I had achieved something. I could share that with others who were impaired.”

Austin often conducts community workshops like the one she presented in Orland Park, during which she introduced the crowd of about 20 to Solomon, who came from the federally accredited Guide Dogs for the Blind School in San Rafael, Calif.

At Second Sense, the visually impaired can learn how to use computer software that enlarges or converts text to audio. They can also learn kitchen skills, including knife cuts and working with recipes.

In the past five to 10 years, she said, technology has opened whole worlds for the visually impaired. Movies, television programs, even theater are more accessible, thanks to new technology.

“The more people know about life after blindness, the more fulfilling their life can be,” she said.

Best intentions

In addition to educating the blind about ways to make life easier and more enjoyable, Austin says part of her job at Second Sense is to enlighten the sighted.

Though they may be well meaning, people who grab a blind person’s arm to direct them actually do more harm than good. It is far better to offer specific oral directions to an expressed destination. And if the blind person doesn’t ask for help, it could be because she doesn’t need it.

It takes months of intense work to make a guide dog. Only after the canine passes 10 levels of training can it be paired with a handler, and then put through even more training.

But all that work can be undone if the dog has a bad experience with another canine while on the job. On her recent commute, as Austin made her way north to her office building, she suddenly felt Solomon stiffen on the reins.

“I knew right away there was another dog,” she said.

Ahead, at the corner of Michigan and Lake, was a black poodle out for an early stroll with its human.

“People need to know that guide dogs are working dogs,” Austin said. “They should not be petted, talked to or distracted in any way. It can confuse and disorient them and make them solicitous of more attention.”

In addition, she said, people walking dogs should keep their pets far away from guide dogs.

She understands the urge to reach out to these friendly looking canines, what with their big eyes and easy gait, but Austin said, “The important thing to remember is that guide dogs are not pets, they are workers.

“One bad encounter can ruin a guide dog,” she said.



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