Part III: Can They Really Do That?
“It can be done!” says Larisa Scharikin, Admissions and Recruiting Coordinator/Special Needs Instructor for South Eastern Guide Dogs. She describes the first time she saw a blind person being guided by a dog while using a wheel chair. “It was in Mid Town Manhattan at lunch time.” She watched a woman in a manual wheel chair with her guide dog working through crowds and across streets safely. She was amazed but intrigued.
Scharikin was an instructor at The Seeing Eye Inc. at the time. After leaving New Jersey for warmer climes she settled into her new position at South Eastern Guide Dogs in Florida.
She had wanted to do more work training people who have “special needs,” to work with guide dogs. She found her niche at South Eastern. She says training these unusual teams takes about twice as long. After training the dog to guide an ambulatory person, she transitions into using a power wheel chair. “We’ve found that works best.” The dog doesn’t pull the chair; the blind person holds on to the dog’s harness with the left hand and operates the joystick with the right hand.
In the beginning, she has the dog walk on leash along side of the wheel chair to become accustomed to its sound and movement. Then she progresses to having the dog guide in harness on the school’s campus. The training regimen follows a similar pattern to training an ambulatory team. They progress from residential areas, to busier streets, and into heavy traffic and then they travel to Tampa to see how the dog handles a big city. Scharikin says all the while she observes the dog for signs of stress. If the dog can perform in a large city, it is then pared with a student.
South Eastern works with The Hoveround Company, a wheel chair manufacturer. Scharikin says the engineers are eager to find ways to adapt their product for this kind of work. An example is the creation of a “curb feeler,” which can be attached to the chair. It helps gage the location and depth of a curb.
South Eastern has been doing this type of training for fifteen years and has trained eight students. Virtually all but one of them have had no vision. One of their graduates lives in Los Angeles and travels all over with his dog, and another is deaf/blind and lives in Rochester New York. They continue to refine their techniques. Scharikin estimates the cost of training a wheel chair team at $22 thousand. That includes the cost of a reconditioned wheel chair.
At this point, South Eastern is the only school doing this type of training on a regular basis. They are able to train only one or two wheel chair teams a year due to limited funding. Scharikin reports an increase in requests for this kind of training, yet she understands that other guide dog schools are hesitant to begin training wheel chair teams. However, she says that none of the other schools has sent staff to observe South Eastern’s training methods. Given the increase in need, and South Eastern’s limited resources, she hopes that will change.
A Place Of Hope
Since learning about South Eastern’s program, Dobbin and Pranghoffer have found new hope. “I thought I would have to learn to live with the depression,” says Dobbin, “Now I have something to work toward. I’ve always believed in living life in the possibility. Maybe that’s what’s gotten me to this point.” Pranghoffer echoes this sentiment. “This would give me more independence. Maybe now I can go out without having to have someone with me all of the time.”
Both women have applied to South Eastern. They are awaiting a response.