by Jim Price
Her first dog guided for six years but had to be retired. It was more than 13 years later when she finally got her second Guide Dog.
"That first walk after all those years was great," she said, her face beaming. "I do just fine with my cane, but it was so wonderful to walk three times as fast. The wind was blowing in my face and I didn’t have to worry about every little step. My husband, who is also blind, calls having a Guide Dog the 'Cadillac of mobility'."
Debbie Wunder, 56, of Columbia, Missouri, was relaxing for a moment during the second week of her two-week training class in Oregon. Snoozing on the floor at her side was black Lab Duran, her new partner. It had been eight days since she first met him. "He was a wiggling, licking, bouncing bundle of happiness. It was great."
Debbie was born with congenital cataracts. She said she had multiple surgeries by the time she was 5 but still had trouble with her vision. She was 9 when her parents enrolled her at a school for the blind in St. Louis. "Things were different back then. If you could walk the two blocks to the first intersection and get yourself across without being hit by a car, then, it was thought, you didn’t need a cane. We kids loved that, because we thought we looked foolish with a cane. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I looked a lot more foolish tripping over everything."
She was in her twenties when she first got involved with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), and is now a local chapter officer. "I got a lot of support from other blind people in that group, and I began to understand it was okay to be blind. I didn’t need to try to cover it up." Her husband, Gary is editor of the NFB’s newspaper, The Braille Monitor.
She didn’t get serious about cane travel until after the birth of her first child. "I was 22 and suddenly I started worrying about getting across the street safely. "And it wasn’t until 1991, as her vision was steadily declining, that Debbie finally decided to get a dog. "We were living in Springfield and I was taking classes at the college. It was a three mile walk with a lot of rough ground to cover." Soon she was off to GDB for four weeks of training with Lee, a beautiful, happy Golden Retriever.
"She was a great guide and we were a good team," she said, smiling at the memory. "Unfortunately, she developed early dementia and I had to retire her after about six years of guiding. At the time, my youngest was only three years old and I just couldn’t be away that long to get another dog." It was back to the cane.
Then a few years ago, her vision got dramatically worse. Despite seven surgeries in two years, her sight is pretty much gone. "It was actually kind of relief," she said. "I had been on a roller coaster where I could see a little, and then I’d lose it. It would get better, and then it was gone again. It was finally good just to settle down and learn to live with it. I have great support from my kids and my husband and everything will be fine."
Back home, Debbie is very active with the NFB. Recently she took a group of blind middle schoolers on an outing that had them riding a zip line and climbing a 30-foot rock wall. "It was all about building their confidence and showing them they could do more than they thought they could." She also is an independent sales contractor for a company that makes a hand-held reader device that works with cell phones.
Debbie does a lot of traveling and Duran will be doing his part to help. "I’m amazed at how fast we are becoming a team," she said, reaching down to scratch behind one of his ears. He opened one eye, just to make sure it was her, then sighed deeply and went back to sleep. "This new two-week class at GDB is wonderful. With new training techniques like food rewards and patterning, the dogs learn so fast. It’s been a very positive experience for both of us."
She said Guide Dogs for the Blind has a wonderful reputation in the blind community. "There are other good companies, but GDB really sets the standard. They are always a step ahead of the rest. I wouldn’t go anywhere else."