GDA Graduates Show Others The Way

From advocating to educating: three graduates who open doors and open minds

Students arrive at Guide Dogs of America and spend 28 days in class learning to work and live with a guide dog. All of our graduates leave GDA as ambassadors of what can be achieved with the assistance and companionship of a guide dog, returning home empowered to pursue a life filled with “the possible.” Many — simply by their actions and example — have inspired others.

Three graduates who work and volunteer in positions that directly or indirectly serve to empower others living with vision impairment are Andrew Hager, Beverly Hammett and Robert Sweetman. The work done by each of them extends beyond their clients, customers and the classroom and reaches into the communities in which they live and work to open doors and open minds.

From the classroom to the principal’s office

Andrew HagerWhen Andrew Hager returned to teach his sixth-grade world cultures class this fall with his guide dog, known in public as “Trotsky,” he had to expand the curriculum. As the first blind teacher at the school, Hager had to teach his class, as well as the school’s administration, about what to do when you meet a guide dog team.

“It was easy to teach the kids; they are used to having rules,” Hager said. “It took a little longer with the adults, but everyone has been great. The school and the administration have been very supportive and very respectful of Trotsky.”

Hager spent a few days during those first weeks back at the school giving his students the opportunity to ask him questions.

“I told the kids to ask me what they want to know about blindness, my guide dog and the training program at GDA,” said Hager. “I showed them a video about retinitis pigmentosa, and we talked about what they thought a person with a disability could do. The biggest thing I want these kids to take away this year is an understanding that disabled or not, you can be whatever you want.”
Hager gave his students the assignment to create a pamphlet about what to do when you meet a guide dog team. He also announced that one of the pamphlets would be selected to be included in a back-to-school packet at the start of the next school year.

“They did a great job,” Hager said. “It means a lot to me that the school has been so accepting and that Trotsky and I have this opportunity to go beyond the classroom to educate people. A lot of it is just awareness. Once you get past the initial strangeness of having a dog there, it becomes normal and a part of the culture.”

He’s there with the ‘assist’

Sue & Robert SweetmanRobert Sweetman’s parents always told him, “Just try it.” Today, that’s what he is telling his customers who turn to him for help with assistive technologies.
Sweetman and his wife, Sue, own a company that sells assistive technology — computers and other devices — for people who are blind or have low vision. He also provides training, which is tailored to meet the needs of the user.

“Our main job is setting up the equipment properly and configuring it so it’s easy for them to use,” Sweetman said. “At first, people seem a little overwhelmed by all the equipment. They are not going to be comfortable with it right away, but I encourage them to push limits on what they can do by using the technology that is available. It opens up so many opportunities and possibilities. That is what drew me to this business.”

Every time he delivers a system, Sweetman will spend two to three hours showing someone how to use the software. Oftentimes, he will record their session so the person can go back to a specific issue.
“I spend a lot of time writing manuals,” Sweetman said. “Sometimes, a person won’t be able to access the format that the manual has been provided in, so I will adapt it for them. If you can’t access the manual, you can’t use the technology. These tools are here to make life easier and more accessible. I want to do whatever I can to make this easy for people to learn and to use.”

Sweetman travels with AJ, his guide dog of six years. “He makes travel so much easier,” said Sweetman. “He learns routes quickly and is great at navigating airports.”
Together, the team delivers systems to his customers throughout Southern and Central California. But it’s not just Sweetman’s customers who benefit from his understanding of assistive technologies and his ability to clearly communicate how to use it.

“Recently, I received an email from a man who was attending a university in Ethiopia,” said Sweetman. “He thanked me for teaching him to use a particular program. He had found a manual that I had written online and used it to learn the program.”

No obstacles, just opportunities

Beverly Hammett & MazieBeverly Hammett’s motto is “Go with the gusto!” And she goes with more gusto than most.

Hammett’s 35 years of experience in social work gave her the tools and skills to be a successful advocate and have served her well as she endeavors to remove obstacles and create opportunities for others with disabilities. Since 2012, the tireless volunteer has logged 2,500 to 3,000 hours a year with her guide dog, Mazie, by her side. “We are on the go every day. Some of it is business; some of it is pleasure,” Hammett said. “Mazie and I do it all, and she helps me to do it with freedom and independence.”

Hammett is extremely involved in public speaking and takes every opportunity to advocate for the blind and to educate and inform her local and regional communities. She has spoken to countless service clubs, churches, schools, hospitals and nursing homes and has won numerous community service awards for her work, including the Governor’s Incentive for Giving Excellence (GIVE) for outstanding service.

“I went to GDA never dreaming all these doors would open for me,” said Hammett. “I was surprised by how many people wanted to talk to me about having a guide dog. It has given me so many opportunities to make a difference. I have created a disability-awareness program to educate and inform people about service dogs. I speak to as many organizations as I can.”

In addition to educating the public, she helps educate other blind people about the services that are available to them. Hammett provides them with one-on-one instruction, including working with students who need orientation and mobility training (O&M) and taking students and teaching them their bus routes.

“Together, Mazie and I let people with disabilities know there are no limits. We can move mountains,” said Hammett.

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