Growing up blind

Noreen McInerney and her guide dog Huw
Noreen McInerney and her guide dog Huw

Growing up blind was, for the most part, a positive experience for one young Irish woman. 21-year-old Noreen McInerney from Portlaoise has been severely visually impaired since birth. At times, however, she has found it ‘pretty stressful’ to do the normal things, like getting around by herself or having a social life. The City’s Áine Hennessy spoke to Noreen about what it is like to be blind, and how her life has changed for the better since she received the gift of her guide dog Huw.

“Before I got Huw (pronounced “Hugh”), it was pretty stressful, and I hadn’t much of a social life. I had to use a long cane the whole time to get around and it was a lot harder to do things. People weren’t as obliging and friendly, because they didn’t understand I suppose. But now they see Huw and they know.”

The Irish Guide Dogs Association provided their services to a record number of 197 people in 2013, all of which are free of charge. Noreen McInerney was one of them.

Huw, who is a cross between a labrador and a retriever, was trained for two years in the Irish Guide Dogs Training Centre in Cork. Noreen also received three weeks of free training at the centre last August, where she learned how to use and care for Huw. As a guide dog, Huw adapts very well to new environments, and Noreen commands him using different words and actions.

Huw has brought a sense of normality to Noreen’s life. She’s says she is more independent now and has made many new friends.

“The reaction I’ve been getting from people is a lot more positive and friendly, and I’m treated more like a normal person now. He’s changed my life, I’ve so many new friends now because of him. I can go out for food, to the cinema, the hairdressers, the beauticians, everywhere!” she said.

Like any dog, Huw is quite playful and attention-seeking, and very clever. Noreen likes to bring him for long country walks.

“I have to be careful because he goes mental if you bring him near ducks.

One day I was walking down a narrow path, and he kept pushing me in with his paw. My mother was laughing, she said ‘He’s not going to let you walk down this path’. He’s very protective over me.

Although Huw’s training was fully funded by the Irish Guide Dogs Association, the expenses don’t end there. All expenses after training are paid for by the dog owner. The lifetime cost of a guide dog, including training, is €38,000.

“Once I got him I had to pay for everything. I buy a 20kg bag of food for him for €50 and that lasts about six weeks. Then he has his visits to the vet, for checkups and vaccinations. And I had to get him insured too,” she said.

More than 80 per cent of Irish Guide Dogs’ income comes through voluntary donations, and it costs more than €4.8 million annually to run the organisation and meet the demand for services. Noreen wants to give something back to the Irish Guide Dogs Association, for providing such an excellent service, and changing her life.

“I got involved in fundraising for the Irish Guide Dogs Association as soon as I got Huw. The both of us sit outside various different places, like Dunnes Stores, collecting now. I really want to give something back,” she said.

The Irish Guide Dogs Association was delighted to announce that, while working in a difficult financial climate, it managed to raise more money through fundraising in 2013 compared with 2012. CEO Padraig Mallon said that the charity exceeded expectations.

“This is a great achievement in challenging times and it is reassuring that the public continue to value our work and trust us to deliver much-needed services for people who are vision impaired. With the public’s support and the hard work of our team we aim to train 240 people in 2014 and looking further ahead we have a target of training 266 people in 2016. The targets are not just a number. What is really important is 266 lives we will change for the better,” said Mr Mallon.

While there is a long waiting list of people who desperately need a guide dog, Mr Mallon said that all of the dogs must be trained to very exacting standards so that they can be a life-changing resource for the recipient.

“Training is a lengthy process and every single dog that goes through the programme is trained to the highest possible standards. The fact that all of our services and supports are offered free of charge means that anybody who needs our services can get them without having to worry about whether they can afford it,” he said.

With her new-found independence, Noreen hopes that she can finally pursue a career in sports massage therapy.

“I’m hoping to start a level 7 Fetac course in sport massage soon, and it’s for two years. I’m really interested in massage and alternative therapies and medicines, and I love helping people.

“I cannot emphasise enough how much Huw has changed my life. He plays such an important role in being my guide, and I wouldn’t be able to achieve all of this without him.”

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