23 January 2019

With Dale by my side, I can take on the world! How a guide dog changes the world for a person.

I met Otillia a few years ago when I was assisting a photographer with a shoot in the Karkloof forest in the KZN Midlands. Here was this lovely young lady who despite her visual impairment was the perfect model. We did a series of themed images and you would never ever say that this was a model different to any other model that I had ever shot. 

Otillia modeling in the forest - 2016

Late last year I read an article about how Otillia and her new guide dog had been refused entry into a bridal boutique in Umhlanga for her to choose a wedding dress for her upcoming wedding. All of this because her dog was not allowed in the shop because it might mess the dresses up. OMW. What a disgrace! This is not a pet but a WORKING DOG. The eyes of the person. In fact one of the most disciplined and cleanest dogs I have ever come across. (For those of you who don't know, we photographed close to a thousand dogs last year).

I immediately contacted Otillia and asked if we could please do a photo shoot with herself and Dale for the purposes of creating awareness to the uneducated about guide dogs. I also asked her to share her story with me so that I could share it with the photos. 

A lovely woman with a minor disability who is day after day discriminated against by store owners, shopping centres and security guards because Dale is apparently not allowed in. What total BS! This is a working dog and people need to be educated.

Stand Tall - Otillia and Dale

This is Otillia's story.

My journey as a VIP (visually impaired person) started in 1994 as a 6 year old. My Grade 1 teacher noticed my inability to see on the black board. After numerous tests and specialist visits I was diagnosed with a genetic eye condition called Stargardts. This is a type of macular degeneration that causes the loss of Central vision and leaves you with some peripheral vision and there is no prevention or cure in modern medicine yet.

I matriculated in Pretoria at Prinshof School for partially sighted and blind in 2006 and while most teenagers my age were applying to get their licenses for their shiny VW Golfs, I was applying to get my shiny black K9 transporter Tia. Tia Maria stole my heart at first sight but sadly it didn't work out, she was more of a guard dog than a guide dog.

As a college student I strived for independence and removed myself far from anyone and anything I knew. Potchefstroom came with a lot of new adventures but also with big challenges and through my teary phone calls back home my determination just kept growing. I was desperate to fit into normal society and subconsciously started training myself to hide my disability at all costs. I refrained from using my phone in public to avoid people noticing how closely I had to look at my screen. I learnt in order to appear less squint I always had to look to the left of someone when I spoke to them. I also had to constantly break my routines and step out of my comfort zones to try and build as well as keep confidence and appear confident.

7 Years ago I started my therapeutic massage practice in Howick KZN. My partner and I bought a home and started establishing a comfortable life for ourselves but the more comfortable I got, the more I stopped challenging myself and I started losing confidence and independence. I started withdrawing  more. I started feeling like a burden on my partner and my sister more often than not.

Last year on my normal route to work I started tripping and stumbling over rocks and pieces of concrete and realized that there was construction all along my route. It dawned on me that I was using my memory instead of my sight to get to work and that this could cause me major injury because I'm not able to see the ditches, holes and obstacles. I was now even more unsure of myself and relied on others to get around.

It was a major decision for me applying for a guide dog again because this would mean revealing my disability which I spent so much time hiding from the world. Who out there likes drawing attention to their biggest weakness? You always think that you are coping just fine but you don't realize how much more fulfilled your life could be. 

A very special bond

Dale is my new shiny black sports model with built in navigation, 360 degree obstacle sensors and ABS brake system. She's my eyes, she's my confidence, she's my independence and she's my best friend. There is no sighted person alive that would ever understand the complete trust, love, gratitude and companionship between a visually disabled person and their guide dog.