WEB EXTRA: “A little help from his (four-legged) friend”

Freshman Corbb O’Connor has some clear vision within three feet of eyes. But beyond that, he says, his world seems “as if I’m looking through wax paper.”

Blind since birth, O’Connor has a genetic condition called Leber’s congenital retinal amaurosis that affects his retinas. O’Connor, a student in the Elliott School, says he can see things like the fact that there’s a building ahead of him, or that the sun is shining, but the details are cloudy. He also completely lacks peripheral vision. “That’s where Phoenix is the biggest help,” O’Connor says, referring to his guide dog, a three-year-old yellow Labrador who helps him navigate curbs, stairs, traffic, and other obstacles. “He has a job to do, and that job is to keep me safe.”

There are just a few places Phoenix doesn’t visit. He skips the zoo to avoid upsetting the animals, and he can’t go to the movies because the floors make him sticky with popcorn, but besides that, the two are nearly inseparable. Since they met in July 2005, they’ve never been apart for more than five hours. “He’s just like my coat,” O’Connor says. “He comes where I go.”

The typical eight-year-old

When Rita O’Connor, Corbb O’Connor’s mother, took her four-month-old son to a pediatrician for a checkup 18 years ago, the doctor said he was concerned Corbb’s eyes weren’t following the light he was shining in the boy’s eyes. He told Rita she should take Corbb to a specialist.

“I said jokingly, ‘You’re telling me he can’t see?’ He said, ‘I don’t know what he sees,'” Rita recalls. “That is major. When you’re expecting a baby, you have all the visions of a worst case scenario, the what ifs. They have all their fingers, all their toes, they’re breathing, they’re pink. You think you’re over the hump. Then they say something like that to you.”

She began thinking of all the visual cues people use to get information to and from the world around them. She wondered how little Corbb would ever learn to smile. To sit straight. To read body language. One day, when Corbb was seven or eight, his eye doctor told him he should know there isn’t anything he couldn’t do because of his lack of sight. The family raised O’Connor with that philosophy in mind, and they were also thankful for the slight vision he still had.

As a child, O’Connor was reluctant to use a cane to get around, and he didn’t even use one regularly until he was in high school. “It was the idea of image,” O’Connor explains. “I didn’t want to be seen as the blind guy.” Though he’s had Phoenix for less than two years, he had a desire for a guide dog since the first time he laid eyes on one 10 years ago. While in high school, he applied for a program that provides guide dogs to the blind, and the summer between his junior and senior year he met Phoenix.

Scariest day of your life

O’Connor traveled to a facility in San Rafael, Calif. where he spent 28 days learning how to use Phoenix and detect the many signals the dog could communicate to him. The two trained together in all sorts of environments – urban areas, suburban areas, airports, escalators, and mass transit, to name a few.

“They do an entire day – it’s called traffic training – and it’s the scariest day of your life,” O’Connor says. “There is literally an instructor in a van that tries to run you over and show you how good your dog is.”

O’Connor finished the program, and the two went through senior year of high school with no problems at all, much to O’Connor’s relief. Rita said the dog provided her son with companionship, safety, confidence, and independence. O’Connor says whether blind people use a cane or a guide dog is just a matter of personal preference, but he plans on using guide dogs for the rest of his life. Instead of looking down while he walks, as he did with his cane, he can now look up at people and his environment as he walks. “With a cane, you’re looking for obstacles,” he explains. “With a dog, you’re looking for a destination.”

Though there are other blind students at GW, O’Connor is the only one who has a service dog, says Christy Williams, director of Disability Support Services. Though Phoenix has learned patterns throughout campus – he knows O’Connor usually stops for the Mount Vernon shuttle and will often visit the Marvin Center – “It’s not his job to know that,” O’Connor says. “It’s not like ‘Phoenix, take me to Clark Hall.”

Since Phoenix accompanies O’Connor almost everywhere, the dog sits by his side even while in class. He typically sleeps through class but occasionally provides some entertainment. “We’re in the front row of Funger, and you’ve got 200 people looking down on him, and he’s sprawled on his back wagging his tail.”

The same thing in the end

O’Connor says people have a range of reactions when they first meet him and Phoenix. Some are enthusiastic, but some have a negative view of the blind. “(T)here’s a stereotype in their head of blind people,” he says. “Blind people maybe always need help. Blind people are a lot of work. Blind people are stupid.”

The freshman makes a point to educate people about his blindness whenever he can. As a member of a new speakers bureau assembled by the school’s Disability Support Services office, O’Connor has talked to groups such as the Board of Trustees and a fraternity about his blindness. He says he is open about his condition and hopes that by discussing it, he’ll help eliminate the stigma attached to those with disabilities.

Despite his blindness, O’Connor has a knack for working with computers, which he can see if sits up close. He creates flyers for Mount Vernon Campus Life and serves as the technical director of the student news Web site Daily Colonial. “There are differences, sure. I do things differently. But we still end up doing the same thing in the end,” he says. “We still have to take the same tests. Maybe I take the test on the computer, but it’s the same material.”

O’Connor discusses his blindness with candor, and says that no question is out of his range. People have asked how he cooks, how he gets soft drinks from self-serve fountains, how he knows where he’s going on the street, how he uses his cane, and even how he goes to the bathroom. But sometimes people lack good timing and tact. He recalls going to the movies with another blind friend who checked his voicemail after the film. “Some lady came up and said, ‘How do you blind people communicate on the cell phone?’ I was trying to understand what her question meant. My friend cut me off before I could even answer and he said, ‘You talk.'”

I’m not going to pick you up anymore

Though some people are enthusiastic about Phoenix and eager to learn about O’Connor’s blindness, others want nothing to do with the pair, a fact O’Connor attributes to a lack of education about the blind and how service dogs are used.

He says two types of places can be especially resistant to Phoenix: Asian restaurants and taxi cabs with Middle Easter drivers, who O’Connor says both view dogs as unclean. When a restaurant tries to refuse him service, “I have to nicely educate them about U.S. law.” While eating dinner with his family at a D.C. restaurant, he was once asked to leave Phoenix at the bar, which prompted his father to write a stern letter to the restaurant management. “Leaving your dog at a bar is like taking out your eyeballs and sticking them on the hostess stand while you go enjoy your dinner,” O’Connor says his father wrote. “Phoenix is my eyes.”

Cabbies have tried to charge extra passenger fees for Phoenix. One went even farther than that. “One driver once handed me a bill. I said, ‘What’s this?’ He said, ‘Well, last time you were in my cab, I had to have it cleaned because there was dog hair, and it was a $75 cleaning fee, so I need you to pay that.'”

Though he doesn’t encounter Phoenix-related discrimination regularly – only once or twice a month – when it happens “it’s a huge deal” because of the stress it causes O’Connor, his friends, and the guide dog himself. But, he quickly adds, “I’m not the type to hold it against them forever.”

A chick magnet

Though he sometimes encounters discrimination because of Phoenix, the other extreme occurs as well, and some people embrace the dog to the point that they ignore O’Connor himself. Though there are sometimes frustrations, he also concedes that having a dog at his side is also a great way to meet people. “He might be the chick magnet, but I have to be the magnet that doesn’t turn off. I have to keep them around because a dog is only cool for so long.”

Christine French, a freshman who lives in O’Connor’s dorm, says living near Phoenix and O’Connor has its benefits.

“Just the other night he did something sweet. Corbb…said he knew I was stressed out, so he brought Phoenix by and said ‘do you want a dog break?'”

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