Making sense of blindness: The day Jo went blind...

Jo Davison tries out Quiver the Guide Dog with his trainer Kevn Rowney on the streets of Sheffield
Jo Davison tries out Quiver the Guide Dog with his trainer Kevn Rowney on the streets of Sheffield
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Jo Davison took up the Guide Dogs Week challenge to walk in the shoes of a blind person

It’s the sense we fear losing the most; our sight.

We shudder to think of the things we would never be able to see again - and the way blindness would cause our world to implode on us.

Almost 90 per cent of Yorkshire people say losing their sight would be one of the worst things that could happen to them. Over three quarters fear they would lose their independence, feel unable to cope and fall into depression.

Nearly seven out of 10 would be too frightened to leave the house and 59 per cent would hope to be matched with a guide dog,

Yet only two per cent of the population donates regularly to a sight loss charity, reveals research released by Guide Dogs For The Blind to mark Guide Dogs Week 2012.

The charity’s annual awareness and fundraising event runs until Sunday - and this year they are hoping to raise both money and compassion by asking people to take on a blindfold challenge.

Sighted people are being urged to step into the world of the blind to find out just how difficult life is without one of your most vital senses.

We’re asking people to Walk My Way,” says Jayne George, director of fundraising at Guide Dogs.

“Whether it’s taking a sponsored blindfold walk, having dinner in the dark, or singing karaoke with your eyes shut, we want people try experiencing something blind people have to do every day. We think it will open your eyes” urge the society.

They hope to raise over £700,000 to provide more guide dogs. “Blind and partially sighted people overcome extraordinary challenges everyday to live independently and do the things that the rest of us take for granted.”

There is a huge need for more guide dogs; 180,000 blind and partially-sighted people rarely leave home alone. And every hour, another person in the UK goes blind.

A fundraising Go Walkies dog walk is being held at Rother Valley Country Park on Sunday, October 14, from 10am-3pm.

Fundraising guide dog Asher will take the lead, along with Guide Dogs staff and volunteers. Join in - and maybe try doing a small section with a blindfold, suggest organisers.

Walkers are asked to register first at www.gowalkies.org.uk

n You know what it’s like.

You’re in the middle of TK Maxx and some bargain-hunter utterly absorbed in their quest steps straight out in front of you. There’s only just time to avoid her.

Only, if you’re blind and you are one of the few lucky enough to have in your hand a £50,000, highly sensitive and custom-tuned ‘all-seeing’ device, you probably don’t. Because such moments will never happen.

Your costly device will expertly steer you around the oblivious human obstacle in your path every time, without you ever knowing it was there.

That incredible device, by the way, is a guide dog.

And I only realised how many scrapes and potentially dangerous near-misses they are able to get their owners out of when I got to test-drive one for a lunch-hour.

I meet Quiver, my handsome lunch date, on the pavement opposite Sheffield Cathedral. He is 20 months old, a collie-retriever cross, a joyously friendly, waggy bundle.

He seems so... ordinary; so like my own dog. It’s hard to believe that in a few months’ time, he will be changing someone’s life; expanding their world beyond measure.

For now, though, he’s going to be changing my view on the world of the blind and partially-sighted - and giving me a glimpse of just how invaluable guide dogs are.

We are about to walk together into the city centre throng - with me blindfold and totally reliant on Quiver. I suddenly realise how many hazards are out there; can this sweet little soul busily studying pigeons get me through safely?

But on goes his harness and there’s an instant metamorphosis; Quiver becomes a model of maturity. He is calm and focused.

Time for me to change personality, too; on goes a blindfold so thorough in its task I can see absolutely nothing and I transform into a timid, nervous, visibly hunched figure.

Kevin Rowney, Quiver’s trainer for the last nine months, is at my elbow, issuing gentle but firm instructions to both me and the dog.

We set off; I know I’m passing the Cutler’s Hall and that the pavement must be crowded, but my senses are telling me something very different; I feel like I’m in a vast open space devoid of walls, roads, buildings or people. I’ve lost my sense of direction, too. All I can do is answer the gentle yet constant pull on the reins in my hand - and hope. It’s literally blind faith I’m walking with.

I feel so off-balance, I take wide, toddler-style steps and hold one hand out in front of me.

My ears try to help me navigate; voices suddenly become clear, then fade as their owners pass me. When they become crystal-clear, Kevin explains it’s because we’re walking through a bus shelter, which is blocking the noise of traffic out - and that blind people learn to listen out for such changes. He adds that my stooped posture and my new gait are down to my body trying to protect itself against a fall; it’s what most blind and partially-sighted people do unconsciously.

Suddenly there’s a the smell of baking pasties - and Quiver stops. Not to beg, but to inform me that we have arrived at a set of steps. I slide a foot up and onto each one, then guide it to the back of the step to work out where to put my other foot. One, two, three steps and followed by a short walk, then three more. Kevin informs me we’re just about to walk into the Church Street entrance to TK Maxx.

I have trotted blithely up these steps on countless shopping trips without ever knowing how many there were. Never have I managed to walk through the store so swiftly, either. We’re out of there in no time, without incident. Or so I thought.

Kevin later informs me that a woman clutching an armful of dresses wandered straight into my path, then stopped dead. She hadn’t seen me; and obviously I hadn’t seen her. But Quiver had and that smart little lad, trained to act on his thoughts, had simply guided me round her in a movement so gentle, I hadn’t felt a thing.

We proceed through Orchard Square, he takes me through the centre of two bollards I had no idea were in my way and Kevin tells us to turn left. I can hear buskers singing and feel cobbles underfoot; we’re on Fargate.

“Straight on, Quiver, straight on,” I tell him. Minutes later, Kevin tells me to lift my mask and turn around. We’ve crossed the busy pedestrian area and walked around seats, litter bins, crowds gathered around the buskers and even a blind person walking with the aid of a stick. We did it in a series of arcs so subtly made, I had not detected them.

To a guide dog, “Straight on” translates as “go in as straight a direction as possible while using your own initiative to keep your owner safe.”

It’s incredible. I walked a blind person’s way for the briefest time; nowhere near enough to ever know how difficult and dark and frightening life must truly be.

But time enough to be utterly amazed and over-awed at what our favourite four-legged friend can be trained to be; the guide to the outside world. The trustee of a sightless person’s blind faith as they step out into the unknown every day.