The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Blind Faith


By: Katie Cutinello

It’s a dreary, rainy Monday morning in Milwaukee at 6:30 a.m. The wind sweeps west through Wisconsin Avenue, rattling the glass windows of the second floor of McCabe Hall in their frames. Sarah Patel, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, wakes up to a pleading cry coming from underneath her bed. She takes a deep breath before she pulls herself up, fighting the urge to fall back asleep. But she knows if she does, the cries won’t stop. Nothing will stop Shay from getting out of dorm room 220.

After a few yawns, Sarah swings her legs over to the left of her lofted twin mattress and hops down to the floor, landing quietly on her toes to keep her roommate from waking. She’s not prepared to deal with that this morning.

Still half asleep, she rifles through a laundry pile of clothes on her oversized futon until she feels the familiar warmth of the heather gray sweatpants that are two sizes too big. She slips them on over her pajamas and reaches over to her desk for Shay’s leash. Steadily, Sarah and Shay walk down the hall until they reach the staircase. Sarah holds the door to let Shay pass ahead of her, and then she tightly grasps the leather band in her hand as she’s led down two flights of stairs.

The dark, misty weather is cold and unwelcoming. “Let’s make this a quick one,” she says to Shay. Patiently, they wait at the crosswalk until the cars traveling south on 17th Street are still. Then, Sarah gives Shay the go with a forward swing of her right arm. By 6:40 a.m., Sarah is in her usual grassy spot outside of Humphrey Hall, waiting for Shay to do her business so Sarah can scurry back to bed and relieve her numb fingers from the cold. But first, she has to survey the damp ground with a much-too-small doggie bag – a chore more difficult for Sarah than the average person.

When she was just 3 years old, Sarah was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa – a degenerative eye disease of the retina. People with RP experience a gradual decline in vision, but most don’t lose their sight until they are 40. Sarah suffers from two conditions of RP in both eyes, which makes her case more aggressive than most.

“My mom noticed it when I was really young,” Sarah says. “When I was little, I would be sitting in my high chair and she would talk to me from across the kitchen, and I wouldn’t look directly at her. I wore glasses up until I was about 10 to help me read, but then it got worse.”

One day, when Sarah was just 13, she woke up feeling dizzy, shaky and unable to clear her head of a blurry fog. Moments later, things turned dark. And just like that, Sarah’s vision was gone.

Sarah stands on Wisconsin Avenue with Shay, listening for the hydraulic air brake of the city bus. She catches the sound from two stops away. It must be close. After the bus comes to a stiff halt on the edge of the sidewalk, the doors open up and she leans forward to yell to the driver, “Which bus goes to Water Street?” The driver says Bus 10 goes to Water Street, shuts the doors and drives away. Damn.

Five minutes later, another bus slides to the curb. “Which bus goes to Water Street?” Patel says to bus driver number two. “This one,” he shouts back. With Shay leading the way, she cautiously steps up the stairs and flashes her glittery, turquoise student bus pass to the driver. Shay leads her to an open seat, but Sarah opts to take hold of the greasy metal pole and stand.

Since Sarah’s vision loss occurred at a young age, the Illinois Department of Human Services paid for a vision teacher to provide help with reading, writing and exams. Kathy Sledz began working with Sarah when she was in the third grade and became a sort-of “second mother” to her, teaching her the skills she needed to start living as a blind person. When they met, Sarah was reading on her own with the help of a large microscope, but Sledz knew she didn’t have much time before that tactic would no longer be an option.

Sledz introduced Sarah to a website that recorded textbooks on tape so Sarah could listen to her readings for school. She also taught her how to read Braille, type on a computer and most importantly, ask for help without feeling bothersome.

“It was my job to travel to her school and teach her whatever skills she needed,” Sledz says. “The big impact is when she got to middle school, where she couldn’t really use her vision anymore for schoolwork. (But) we were working on it and preparing for it for a long time. She handled it so smoothly. There were no setbacks. She just kept on going.”

And by going, Sledz means really going. Sarah’s mother, Rehana, recognized the importance of an education and would not allow Sarah to pity herself for being blind. While attending public middle school and high school, Sarah maintained a 3.9 GPA. She never asked for assignment extensions and refused to be grouped into classes with other disabled students.

“In school settings, there are programs where I can come to a school and get all the blind kids in one classroom, “ Sledz says. “But Sarah never wanted that. She never associated herself with the blind group.’’

It’s Friday morning and Sarah is in the bathroom getting ready for class. In search of her phone, she lightly runs her fingers over the counter, bypassing a bottle of hand lotion and an eye brush kit before she finds it. She pushes the lock button. “Ten for-ty one,” it says. Class is at 11. Plenty of time.

She runs the electric straightener through the top of her coarse, black, shoulder-length hair. It is still straight from the work she did on it the night before, but she likes the added shine from the touchup. After a final brush-through, she reaches for a purple eye shadow palette in her makeup bag. A close friend of Sarah’s bought it for her a few years ago and taught her how to apply each color with the teardrop-shaped sponge applicator. Slowly, Sarah swipes the lavender matte-finished powder across her eyelids and then opens her big, green, glossy eyes. She wears it because she’s been told the purple makes her eyes pop.

“Ten for-ty sev-en,” the iPhone says. Sarah turns to her desk to load her backpack. Since class is at Marquette Hall, the furthest from her dorm room, she wants to get a head start. She slides on Shay’s harness and then walks out of her room to meet her friend, Katie. The two were roommates last year in an Abbottsford triple.

“We were texting before we met and I said, ‘Just to let you know, I have a peanut allergy,’” Katie Suhling says. “She responded, ‘I’m actually blind. Will that be a problem?’”

Marquette was not one of Sarah’s first choices. She wanted a large state school where she thought she might be less conspicuous. “I had to factor in if [the school] had the disability services I wanted,” Sarah says. “At the state level, the services aren’t the best, but Marquette was willing to work with me for anything I needed.” Marquette’s easy access to public transportation and its small campus were the deciding factors in Sarah’s decision. It helped, too, that she was only an hour’s drive from home.

During the 2012 fall semester, Marquette’s Office of Disability Services provided services like note taking, photocopied PowerPoint presentations and extended time for testing to 4.2 percent of the total student population of 11,749. The office, on the fifth floor of the 707 Building, works with students’ physical disabilities like Sarah’s, or with students who have psychological or learning disabilities. Sarah uses the office to get papers edited and to take exams through WYNN, a computer program that can read tests orally at any speed.

When it comes to studying, Sarah avoids the library because she prefers to study alone. Every day when she returns to her dorm room from class, Sarah releases Shay to her bed, and Sarah sits down at her overcrowded desk to catch up on homework. All of her assignments are kept on her second edition iPad. After folding the leather iPad case to its upright position, Sarah types on the black, raised keyboard. “S-O-C-I-O-L-O-G-Y,” the iPad says. Immediately the pages of her textbook pop up on the screen and the iPad continues to read aloud. “Literally everything is done through my iPhone or iPad,” Patel says. “If I didn’t have Apple, I don’t think I would be in college. And if I ever lost my iPhone or iPad, the world would literally end for me.”

As Sarah walks the campus with Katie, they discuss their plans for the evening. It’s Friday, which means Pizza Shuttle and LOST is on the schedule. If it were warmer, they might walk to the Public Market to grab dinner or take Shay on a walk to the lake.

“I’ve always been a homebody,” Sarah says.

Class is over for the day and Sarah has retired to her room. She hugs Shay as she removes the brown leather harness from her petite, black Labrador body. The two take their usual spots on the futon. Their work for the day is done. For the rest of the night, Shay is free to roam the halls or walk with a loose leash. But she’s the only dog with that privilege. In fact, Shay is Marquette’s only four-legged resident in the dorms.

Sarah and Shay were paired together last summer at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York, an internationally accredited guide dog school that provides its clients with greater independence by pairing them with guide dogs. For years, Sarah wanted a dog, but knew it was important that she could navigate the campus with a walking cane first, in case her guide dog was unable to perform its duties. But now, Sarah can’t imagine life without Shay.

Michelle Brier, public relations and marketing coordinator at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York, says they hold their dogs responsible for protecting their owner in instances when it’s time to cross a busy street or avoid a pothole.

“A lot of people say a cane is an obstacle finder, and a dog is an obstacle avoider,“ Brier says. “Dogs don’t know when to cross the street, but they do know when to step away from a moving vehicle. They can also be trained to avoid overhead obstacles.”

When she was getting used to Marquette and Milwaukee, Shay was anxious on campus. But since her first semester, she’s become more comfortable. So comfortable that, to Sarah’s embarrassment, she’s been caught snoring in class.

Sarah’s sitting at Marquette Place in the Alumni Memorial Union at a round table with a few friends. And as always, Shay is the center of attention. As Sarah eats, Shay puts one paw on Sarah’s lap and leans her head on her leg. “She’s such a tail wagger,” Sarah says. When people approach Shay, she doesn’t hide behind Sarah. She openly accepts their pets and kisses. But Sarah says Shay doesn’t go around licking everyone in gratitude of their attention. In one instance, a man approached the duo sitting on a bench and Shay started growling, which doesn’t happen often. “Shay definitely has intuition,” Patel says. “I trust her completely.”

Since guide dogs are allowed anywhere their owner goes (city buses, grocery stores, public restrooms and movie theaters, to name a few) they are held to the highest grooming standards. Sarah brushes Shay’s teeth, combs her ever-shedding hair, paints her nails, and just for good measure, sprays her with puppy perfume. “I feel like a mom,” Patel says. “Yes, she’s cute, but she’s a lot of work.”

Although she’s unsure of what she wants to do after graduation in May 2015, Sarah does know she doesn’t want to be in Milwaukee. She wants to move somewhere warm so she doesn’t have to worry about taking Shay outside in six inches of snow for two months out of the year.

As a philosophy and social welfare and justice major, she’s considering being a school counselor but worries her condition may hold her back. She applied to be a Marquette tour guide last year and wasn’t hired.

With a tight economy, “It’s hard for anyone out of school to get a job,” says Sledz. “It’s going to be hard for Sarah to get (a job) where they appreciate her. She has a lot to offer.”

Freshman year, Sarah was paired with great roommates in the dorms who will  be life-long friends. Outside of that, she rarely approaches people to form friendships, mostly because she never knows who is sitting next to her. It’s challenging for her to make friends, Sarah says, because people are afraid to approach her.

“If someone sees an imperfection (in a stranger), they immediately shy away,” she says.

“I can’t change the fact that I’m blind, but I’ve learned to joke about it rather than let it affect me.” Such was the case when she created a Twitter account and dubbed herself @Sarah_Blind. “There are people who are worse off than I am. I have my health and am surrounded by great people who support me. That’s what matters.”

Sarah and Shay

UPDATE: Sarah is now a junior at Marquette living in Campus Town East. She shares an apartment with four roommates, but she and Shay claim the sole bedroom on the bottom floor.

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