Residential in Garton

On Friday morning I went to
Garton adventure centre
with blind and visually impaired people from the RNIB and NCBI, (organisations that work to help people with sight loss in the North and South of Ireland.) It was part of the
Sensory Engagement Programme
which you can read more about from the link above. I left the house at eight with my dad and had intended to vote first, but our car had a flat tire so we just about made it to the bus! It picked people up along the way, and nine of us, along with three PAs and two organisers met in Garton at eleven. O.J was the only dog since the other guide dog owner didn’t take his, but that meant he got all the attention.

We had coffee, got to chat a bit and meet people if we hadn’t met before, then settled into our rooms. O.J and I had one to ourselves, even though it could sleep four people. We did some confidence building exercises with Tracy Dempsey, who runs a company called
Soul Ambition
She is excellent at her job and made it a lot of fun. Sometimes I find things like that boring or a bit airy fairy, but she kept it down to earth and lighthearted.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on the residential at first. I never really liked them when I was small, because I didn’t go to a school for blind people, so I never knew a lot of the people who went, and it felt like I was just being made to go because me and all these people where blind. When I eventually did give in and go to a couple, I always enjoyed them. The main reason I felt I had to go to this one is that they asked me to record what happened during the weekend for a podcast for the project’s website. I packed my plextalk recorder with its great new memory card, and two microphones and intended to record whenever I had a good opportunity.

After dinner we did what’s called the nightline, where you go into a forest blindfolded and follow a rope to find your way around. The person in front has to give directions to the person behind and so on, so the aim is to be able to listen and pass on clear instructions, and to trust yourself and others of course. The facilitator from Garton told me to leave the recorder behind because I’d need my two hands. I told her I’d just record her instructions before we began then put it away. I knew what to expect as I’d done the walk before, and for a totally blind person Its not as challenging. We don’t worry about every step we are taking as much as somebody who is blindfolded, so we are much more relaxed. After ten minutes I took out the recorder and recorded the whole thing, while holding the rope with the other hand. I did have to put it away to crawl on my belly under a tree! Of course I was delighted with myself and got some great audio. The weather was lovely and everyone had fun. I enjoyed hearing other people’s reactions most of all. We had supper, watched the social network and went to bed.

After breakfast on Saturday we had a talk about education and courses availible and a member of the NCBI came to show us equipment on sale in their shop. I’d seen most of it before but there are a couple of things I want when I move house. We had a talk about benefits, to make sure people know what they are entitled to. After lunch two members of the group demonstrated apple technology to those of us who weren’t familiar with it. This didn’t work too well because there were too many computers and phones talking at the same time. I was more interested in the i phone than anything else. After that we all went canooing which was great!

After dinner we had a quiz. There were three teams and it was mostly music, with two general knowledge rounds at the end. We were allowed to use the computers to find the answers, which is cheating of course, but the aim was to force us to use the technology. I didn’t get far because voiceover kept stopping every time I typed. Tracy and I spent the time laughing, changing the voices and making fun of each one instead. Hillarius, but I think you had to be there. The questions were too old for me and I knew about four of them but we won. We went to the pub and Tracy played the guitar and sang when we got back. She’s an amazing singer, and check out her
and find out for yourself.

We were just about to go to bed and I’d been recording bits and pieces of the singing. I wanted to delete something, and decided to do it with one earphone in my ear while getting O.J ready and talking at the same time. I learned the hard way that I can’t multi-task, because I clearly wasn’t listening to the plextalk’s voice prompts and didn’t have it on the correct setting, and deleted everything I’d recorded. When I got to my room and realised what I’d done, I could have cried. There was a lot of cursing involved. I couldn’t sleep and was in the worst mood ever. I kept thinking maybe there’s some way I can get it back, so decided in the morning to say nothing to the organisers, continue recording and make the best with what I had. I recorded two of the boys getting ready for a tandem cycle, then interviewed one of the organisers down beside the lake. Really all I wanted to do was throw the bloody recorder and microphone into the lake and never see it again. We finished the morning with evaluation forms and more lifecoaching, setting goals for the future and how we were going to achieve them. My goal for that day was to try and forget about the recording but it didn’t happen.

O.J was a bit of a brat the morning we were leaving, but a star when we were there. He did bark at dogs outside during one of our sessions, but it was funny. One of the PAs took him for a walk today, and he stayed quietly in my room during the nightline and cannooing as I couldn’t bring him. It was good to have him to get around as the building was quite big, and complicated at first.

I think this programme could bring good opportunities, and already it was a good chance to meet some nice people. You always learn new things and new tips that way as well, and can pass on things you find useful. The weekend away taught me not to judge things before they happen, like I often have a habit of doing. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, so I won’t dismiss the next one as quickly. I just won’t volunteer to record anything next time!

Student life and guide dog ownership

I got an email from the editor of the RNIB’s
Sites. She wanted to know if they could feature my blog and if I would write an article for their websites. She said that a lot of visitors to the site enquire about what it’s like to have a guide dog when you are a student. I didn’t have OJ when I was at university, but thought I’d write about the important things students should consider before applying for a dog while they are at college.
She gave the blog a nice mention, and the the link to the article is

I have my annual training review on Thursday. That’s when a guide dog trainer comes to visit to make sure me and OJ are working well together and aren’t fighting! I know he’s working well but I always still be a little bit nervous at the beginning.

Article for Insight Magazine

I am writing a series of articles, titled ‘my side of things’ for the RNIB’s Insight magazine. It is an educational magazine produced for parents, teachers and professionals working with people with a visual impairment. The first article was ‘Music and Me’, the second introduced OJ and the third one (for the current issue) is below.

Back to School with OJ

When I was about six or seven a local lady visited our school with her guide dog. I was enthralled. Her visit to our class meant so much to me. Hopefully I can bring some of the same enjoyment to children when I visit schools with my own guide dog.

I change the format of my presentations in classrooms depending on the children. Four and five year olds are too young to understand how puppies become guide dogs and how they are trained. Instead they laugh hysterically at the big shake OJ always does when his harness comes off, and when he tries to sniff the floor if their lunches are nearby. They love telling me about their pets and all the animals they know, and some of them who have Labradors insist that they also have a guide dog! I always ask OJ to give his paw if he thinks they have been good. Of course he just focuses on the words “give me your paw” and gives it every time. The children are always very pleased with themselves.

Older children are fascinated by how the process of getting a guide dog works. I sometimes give them copies of a quarterly magazine that Irish guide dogs produce, and a guide dog quiz that I have made. I also talk about what its like to be blind, and show them some gadgets that people with a visual impairment might use. If the children have learned about Louis Braille in their curriculum, I show them the Braille alphabet, and give them a Dymo gun to Braille their names on some sticky labels. Children with special needs have enjoyed participating in the fun, by grooming OJ while having their photographs taken.

Educating children about guide dogs is a pleasure, and you can never predict what they will ask next. What would OJ do if someone tried to hurt me? Can he distinguish between different colours? How does he know not to go to the toilet inside? One visually impaired child even told his teacher that he was “going to completely blind himself so that he could get a guide dog!”

The highlight of the visit, for pupils of all ages, is when they are allowed to stroke OJ at the end of the talk. Teachers are often concerned that he will be nervous with so many people around him, but they are quickly reassured when they see how gentle he is with the children. The only problem I have then is getting him to leave the school!