By Jim Price
She literally laughs at her blindness. "Growing up my parents never let me sit on my pity pot," explained Erin Rumer. "You have to be able to laugh at yourself. And besides, nobody wants to be around a complainer."
Raised in a suburb of Chicago with three sighted siblings, Erin joked, "I always tell them I'm the only one without a disability." She rode a bicycle until she was 12. "I hit a few parked cars, but so what?" Nothing seemed to get her down.
But then came her 16th birthday. All her friends were getting their driver's licenses and of course she wasn't. "That was really hard. Much harder than I thought it was going to be. Before then I had said it was no big deal. I have all these other activities to do, and my friends will give me rides. But suddenly I realized I couldn't be as independent as I wanted. That really hit me."
Luckily, at about the same time she was invited to a seminar. It was put on by a woman who worked at an independent living center where Erin attended meetings of a support group of blind people. "She had a guide dog and the seminar was for people interested in learning more about them. Oh my gosh, I wanted a dog so bad after that." She realized a dog could give her some of that independence she so desired.
Erin had always been an animal lover. "My grandmother raised Bichons and she taught me her love for dogs," she said. She had been aware of guide dogs for years, having watched them and their blind partners at various events. "I could see how smoothly they moved. How quickly they moved. That was very appealing."
After a series of excited phone calls and interviews, Erin found herself on an airplane on her way to the Oregon campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. A few days later she met Sparkle and her life changed forever. "It's just so freeing - to get up from a meeting and walk out the door without bumping into every chair in the room. You can't imagine what that means."
After a month of training, (and her 18th birthday) she and Sparkle were best friends and they returned home to a fresh set of challenges. "At the time only a handful of people had been allowed to have a guide dog in high school," she said. "It's more common now but back then it was pretty rare."
She said most of her classmates loved having a dog around and it helped her make lots of friends. "A dog is a real ice breaker and that was neat. Of course there were the jerks who would bark or growl at her. She would look at me as if to say, ‘Mom, what should I do?' So at home we would play and I would get her all excited then make some of the same sounds so she associated them with just playing. Soon I had friends walking with me in the hallways and if somebody did something they would be all over them before I had a chance to say anything."
Ten years later Erin is married, a college graduate, and on her third guide dog, Onyx. And she's living her dream as a training class specialist back at the Oregon campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. She has a degree from the University of Oregon and is married to Dave, a teacher of the visually impaired and orientation and mobility specialist for Portland Public Schools.
Her job includes helping train the dogs half the time and helping students with their training the other half. "Every morning when I know I'm going to help dogs become guide dogs, and I know I'm going to help other blind individuals become more independent and confident, well that is just so gratifying," she said. "It's the best thing I'll ever do. It's an honor."
And heading out on a walk with Onyx, she said she feels great. "Once I learn a route, and I can let Onyx lead without having to stop at every planter, bench or post, it's absolutely breathtaking for me. With Onyx I get places so much faster, it's a totally different feeling than when I'm alone with my cane. And best of all I have my friend with me."