Thursday, 18 December 2014

Article in Puppy Tails Magazine

I was recently invited to write an article for the Puppy Tails magazine which is now available to read in their Autumn / Winter edition, issue number 68. The magazine is produced in co-operation with the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association UK, for volunteers by volunteers.

In the article I document my Guide Dog journey so far during the time it was written; from finding out about the Guide Dogs charity through the 'Living With Sight Loss' course provided by Henshaws Society for Blind People at my local community centre in the Summer of 2013, signing up to be a Guide Dog service user in September 2013, having my work placement at the Guide Dogs Training Centre in Atherton, Leigh, as part of the 12-week Skillstep course by Henshaws, and being captured on film by Blue Peter during my time there!

Article reads: "My name is Kimberley Burrows, I'm 25, and I've been severely visually impaired all of my life.I was born as a premature baby suffering from congenital cataracts that weren't noticed until I was 4 years old; resulting in underdeveloped optic nerves, the removal of my natural lenses, a sensitivity to light, night blindness and only 10% central vision in my left eye.

During the summer of last year I attended a 'Living With Sight Loss' course, provided by Henshaws Society for Blind People, at my local community centre. This allowed me to converse with other people suffering from sight loss in my local area for the first time. The course ran for 6 weeks and covered a variety of different topics which included mobility, transport, concessions, passes and benefits, personal safety and access to information through talking newspapers and talking books.

through one of the many visits from other organisations, I was introduced to the Guide Dogs charity and the life-changing work that they do to help visually impaired and blind people gain stronger independence and mobility skills through a working partnership with a specially-trained canine. I had never considered applying for a Guide Dog before, but the visit from the volunteer soon changed my mind! She was full of confidence, enthusiasm and determination thanks to her working partnership with her black Labrador - and these were traits I could only dream of at the time! My confidence was lacking and my mobility skills were very much non-existant.

A few months later in early September, it was the annual Fun Day event at the Guide Dogs Training Centre in Atherton, Leigh. The visit from the volunteer earlier in the summer really made an impression on me; so I decided to head along and witness first-hand the work that Guide Dogs do. I met puppy walkers, mobility instructors, trainers and volunteers and they all echoed and reinforced the same sentiments as the volunteer I'd met on the Living With Sight Loss course previously - that working with a Guide Dog is extremely beneficial and does indeed boost confidence, self-esteem and independence to new levels. That was it, I just had to apply! One of the staff members helped to fill in my application form and I was very pleased with the outcome from the Fun Day event!

Two months later, I received my first home visit from a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor. He discussed at length the benefits that I would receive from having a Guide Dog enter my life and also explained the process of the application; completing a medical form, being assessed using a long cane and empty harness, before being matched to potential dogs. Then proceeding by entering the training process before completing and qualifying the programme. A week later, I had my second home visit and my mobility skills were assessed using my long cane.

The final part of the assessment, which involves walking with the empty harness, wasn't to be completed until the following summer, in early August, while I was undertaking a two-week work placement at the Guide Dogs Training Centre in Atherton, Leigh. At the beginning of the summer I had become part of a new course, called Skillstep, again provided by Henshaws Society for Blind People, which I had found out about through the Living With Sight loss course the previous year.

Skillstep is a 12-week course designed to help visually impaired and blind people gain employability skills through vocational and computer training, while providing the opportunity of a two-week work placement. I knew immediately that I wanted my placement to be at Guide Dogs; to have the unique insight into the training process and to learn some new skills for when I'm matched to my own Guide Dog.

I was lucky enough to be a part of various departments and experience the many different roles within the training centre; including puppy training, obedience training, dog care, volunteering and reception work. I enjoyed all of these roles immensely, but have to say that the dog care department was my favourite - and I am now an expert groomer! Towards the end of the second day, I had the fantastic opportunity of being able to experience what it's like to work with a dog in full harness. I was guided around an outside obstacle course filled with traffic cones, safety barricades, A-boards and sign posts with ease and it confirmed to me that signing up for a Guide Dog was the right direction to take and is something I will greatly benefit from in the near future!

Blue Peter were filming on the Monday that I was working in the volunteering department, and between breaks I was guided to the indoor training arena to watch some of the filming take place. I even had the chance to meet Blue Peter's very own Guide Dog puppy, Iggy, afterwards and have a photo taken with her! When the episode premiered on television that was filmed during my placement, I was notified by quite a few people through my blog that I had appeared in the background of some of the footage of Iggy!

On the last morning of my work placement, I received my third and final home visit in the application process; looking at my home-life and the people and pets I live with, assessing the garden where my Guide Dog would spend, and identifying some of the routes I would be taking in my local area. We took one such route for the empty harness part of the assessment, and I learned some of the basic commands to give a Guide Dog when we are working together. I did extremely well in my harness assessment; largely due to the instructor sneakily veering right towards the Butcher's en route, and me recognising where in the route I was to snap back the harness, show that this was not my destination and focus on to the end of the road. Because of this, I passed with flying colours!

My application was completed and accepted the same day, and I have officially been on the waiting list to be matched for 2 months now. It's been a long journey of 13 months already, but I'm sure it's going to be well worth the wait when I'm finally matched, trained and living a completely independent life!"