GDA Graduates Become Students Again With Their Guides

Meet three of our graduates who have pursued their college degrees and join us in congratulating each of them on their significant accomplishments.

With the greatest of ease

Michelle Plunkett and NobleGDA graduate Michelle Plunkett lost her vision during her sophomore year in college but she never lost her desire to pursue her dream of becoming a high school physics teacher.

However, Plunkett did have to take a detour when a stroke brought on by a severe food allergy took her vision and left her with little to no function on her left side. In addition to learning how to walk again, the avid athlete also had to learn Braille.

After a year of physical therapy, Plunkett was walking again and in May 2012 with Noble, her first guide dog from GDA, at her side, she graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology with a degree in physics. This past fall, Plunkett started working toward a master’s degree in secondary education and plans to teach high school physics when she graduates. She is already substituting at high schools in her community.

“Noble has been amazing. I’m very independent and didn’t know if I could give up control to a guide dog,” said Plunkett. “Three years into it, I couldn’t live without him.”

In addition to her studies and teaching, Plunkett has also resumed physical activities that she once thought were not possible. Last year she ran the New York Marathon and, currently, she is training for her first triathlon. When she is not studying, teaching or training, she is coaching Color Guard for the local high school band, an activity that was a part of her life for nine years and in which she competed internationally. Noble, ever-present at Plunkett’s side, has taken on the role of mascot. And there’s one more thing that Plunkett does with “the greatest of ease” — she has taken up trapeze and “silks” (fabric that wraps around the body while performing aerial acrobatics).

“It’s a skill I took up after I went blind,” explained Plunkett. “I have better awareness of my movement and without the visual effect of spinning it keeps me from getting sick. It took Noble a while to get used to having me 30 to 40 feet up in the air, but he’s used to it now.”

For Plunkett and Noble, graduating has always been a goal that would take them to that next step. First as GDA graduates, then, two years later, as college undergrads. In one more year, the two will take the commencement walk once again.

“GDA did an amazing job pairing us. Noble is as eager to learn and experience new things as I am,” said Plunkett. “We are like two peas in a pod.”

“Wrangling” hardware and software to make them more user-friendly for people with disabilities

Jeff Hedberg and WranglerJeff Hedberg’s vision loss went from having a hard time reading the newspaper to needing adaptive technologies. One such technology is CCTV, a closed circuit television in which a television/video camera combination enables people who are visually impaired to magnify the print.

“In a bright light, I see shadows. It’s like you are looking in a Kaleidoscope without colors,” explained Hedberg. “I can still see if the object is enlarged using a CCTV and if I am very close to it.”

Hedberg received his first guide dog from GDA in his mid-20s when his vision loss accelerated due to a condition that is similar to macular degeneration. Now in his mid-40s, Hedberg has returned to college with Wrangler, his fourth guide dog from GDA. This spring Hedberg completed the prerequisite work to gain admission and pursue a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation with an emphasis on adaptive technologies and will start classes at a Wisconsin university this fall.

The married father of two has an interest in information technology (IT) that extends beyond understanding the way computers are put together and the way networks work. Hedberg’s emphasis on adaptive technologies means that he will be working with the engineers and programmers to make the hardware and software they develop more user-friendly.

“For the most part, software and web pages are created for the sighted populace and are least effective for the blind populace; they are challenging to use for other types of disabilities, too,” said Hedberg. “There is a lot of room for improvement in adaptive software and hardware products. I want to help bridge and narrow the gap that exists. It’s all about helping people with disabilities adapt to their environment so kids can go to school and learn, and people can do their jobs.”

Hedberg said that Wrangler “hangs tight” with him throughout their busy days. “We may start our day as early as 4 a.m. Some days, we don’t get home until 8 or 9 p.m. It can be a long day, but he’s always ready and always maintains an appropriate demeanor.”

But it’s not all work and no play for this busy guide dog team. When they are not in school they enjoy outdoor activities no matter the season. “In the winter, I’ll go snowshoeing, and Wrangler runs along on the trails and, in summer, you can find us on the lake. We’ll go out with the family on the pontoon boat and fish, and Wrangler will go for a swim in the lake. He loves to swim.”

Hedberg has had vision loss to some degree all of his life and he has had a guide dog for half of his life.

“Hands down you are much better off with a guide dog than with a cane,” said Hedberg. “A cane will not tell you that there is something around you or overhead. And a dog is more reliable than a person when they are guiding you. People get distracted; the dog is more focused on you.”

He credits the trainers at GDA with giving each of his dogs that focus. “The trainers are absolutely wonderful,” said Hedberg. “The school is a very special place. The whole staff has always been very personable, helpful, and caring. It is a very homey environment and that helps.”

A new way of seeing myself

Terri Kruger and PonteroWhen Terri Kruger went back to school after receiving her guide dog, Pontero, from GDA, she wanted to gain a degree in something she knew she was really good at. Married for 30 years and having raised two daughters, both now in their early 20s, Kruger went with what she knew and felt she was best at — marriage and family. In May 2012, she and Pontero graduated with a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy.

Kruger was born legally blind with limited non-correctible vision due to anaridia. This rare eye condition, in combination with glaucoma, cataracts, and corneal disease, make what would be considered “routine” eye surgery extremely complicated. Kruger was told from an early age to avoid cataract surgery as long as possible. In 1994, she did have surgery in an effort not to go blind. She said this started a “roller coaster of surgeries” lasting nearly 20 years. In 2003, surgery complications left her totally blind until she regained a little bit of sight after a corneal transplant. Kruger lost her vision while her daughters were in high school.

“I always wondered when I was going to be ‘blind enough’ for a guide dog,” said Kruger.

However, before she could get a dog, Kruger had to go through orientation and mobility (O&M) training, which included learning to use a cane. “I broke three canes trying to get the hang of going around rather than into things.”

Ironically, it was when she started using a cane that she began to feel more connected to people.

“Because my eyes looked a little different, I felt different, and didn’t know quite how to approach people,” explained Kruger. “When I got the cane, I had a tool for people to understand that I see things differently.”

Kruger completed her O&M training and applied to GDA. She graduated with Pontero in 2007.

“I was so nervous because I didn’t know if I was going to do blind OK,” admitted Kruger. “This was the first opportunity I had in my life to be with others who really understood where I was coming from. The trainers and staff were wonderful mentors and teachers. They provided me with a new way of seeing myself. It was such a positive and rich experience for me.”

And, it was an experience that gave her the confidence to return to college.

“Pontero has given me a link to the sighted world that I had not had before. Having him has allowed me to connect with people. The barrier goes away because everybody wants to talk about Pontero,” said Kruger.

In May 2012, the guide dog team walked together to accept Kruger’s diploma, both in hood and gown. Kruger is at work on the 3,000 hours of clinical training needed to receive her license. She and Pontero are half way through the process.

“I could not have accomplished any of this without Pontero,” said Kruger. “He has far exceeded any expectations.”

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