The Spokesman-Review : interns

Monday, September 11, 2006

Parker: (Not) Seeing the Light

It's often a difficult task for reporters to truly understand what their sources are experiencing. Such is the case with my stories about Rod Christensen, a 60-year-old Spokane man who has been blind since birth. Christensen lost his guide dog, Justice, July 11 when the dog was killed by a dump truck in North Spokane. I covered the memorial service for Justice - a touching ceremony attended by many of his friends, some of them guide dog owners as well.

On Friday, I did a follow-up article, checking in with Christensen to see how he's adjusting two months after Justice's death. After 20 years of being guided by a guide dog, Christensen now uses a cane because he doesn't want to endanger another dog.

Navigating by cane is much more difficult. I know not only because of what Christensen and his friends at the Lilac Blind Foundation told me, but because some of them encouraged me to step into their shoes for a brief moment Friday by putting on vision-obscuring goggles and trying to navigate using both methods.

Kelly Croft, a rehabilitation teacher for the foundation, first led me into a small closet inside the foundation's building to pick out a white cane. She pulled several green-handled canes from a rack on the wall, holding them next to me to find one long enough. She then showed me a variety of goggles emulating vision disorders, such as glaucoma.

Wearing goggles that made me legally blind, I could see light and colors but only vague shapes as I picked up my cane. With Croft at my side, I navigated via cane through the building and across West Boone Avenue. I was surprised several times when my cane jammed into an unexpected crack, and overhanging branches worried me even though they didn't hit me.

Next, I donned "sleeper shades" that made my world totally black -- much like Christensen's experience. Croft borrowed a guide dog harness from one of Christensen's friends and led me as if she was a guide dog. She walked quickly, and it was difficult to trust her not to run me into any obstacles. When we reached the intersection, Croft told me to listen to traffic and tell her when it was safe to cross. It was not a harrowing experience, but it was certainly uncomfortable.

Walking the busy streets of Spokane as a blind man, even if just for a few minutes, illustrated why a person might choose a dog rather than a cane. It also demonstrated the total state of trust that must exist between a blind person and his or her dog. Christensen and Justice had that trust, and their relationship far surpassed that of a typical human-animal bond. I was grateful to gain greater understanding by walking a little in his shoes.

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