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Two-year-old ‘Recchi’ helps guide her handler, Meredith Ballard, a student a Appalachian State University. Photo by Amanda Getty



Originally published: 2013-05-02 09:11:01
Last modified: 2013-05-02 09:13:15

Mountain guide

by Susan King

Meredith Ballard is a junior at Appalachian State University. When she came to Appalachian she planned to major in biology, but because blind people cannot become doctors, she chose psychology instead.

Ballard was born with a severe visual impairment that has worsened progressively. In low light, she has limited vision. In bright light, she is completely blind.

"I seriously considered becoming a therapist and working with children, but after taking a forensic psychology course I discovered how much I could do for people through law.  I'm now attempting to get into law school, so I can specialize in disability law or civil rights law," Ballard said.

Not all universities have the same policies toward students with disabilities. Ballard's contacts at North Carolina Services for the Blind encouraged her to apply to Appalachian rather than to several larger institutions where clients had reported problems in the past.

"I had heard that Appalachian's Office of Disability Services was one of the best in the state, so I talked to some students who were currently enrolled, and they all convinced me that Appalachian was a great place to get an affordable education," she said.

Ballard had thought about getting a guide dog when she was 15 years old, but at that time, United States agencies did not assign guide dogs to anyone under the age of 17.
 
However, since 1981, guide dogs have been made available to young people ages 11 to 17 by MIRA, a nonprofit agency based in Canada.
 
"Mira" is Spanish for "look" or "to have one's sights set on." Today, MIRA Canada is recognized as a global leader in the breeding, selection and training of guide and service dogs.

MIRA USA, with newly established headquarters in Aberdeen and Southern Pines, was created in 2008 as a legally separate entity, but with close ties to MIRA Canada, where its dogs are currently trained.

While in high school, Ballard began an ongoing conversation with MIRA USA director Bob Baillie.
He encouraged her to apply for a dog, but Ballard was hesitant to start college and begin working with a guide dog at the same time.

Ballard wanted to see if she could make it during her freshman year at Appalachian using her white cane, just as she had done throughout her childhood and public school career.

Although she sailed through her first year with distinction at Appalachian, Ballard conceded, that at times, she had found it difficult to navigate in the snow using just her cane.
 
The time had come to apply for a guide dog.

During the summer between her freshman and sophomore year, Ballard traveled to Quebec for a monthlong training period with MIRA Canada. At its conclusion, she was presented a Bernese mountain dog from a litter named for hockey players: two-year old Recchi, named after Mark Recchi.
Ballard mostly calls her "Rech."

Because she was born and raised in Canada, Recchi learned her commands in French, and that's how Ballard delivers them.

"That experience has completely transformed my outlook on life and made me a happier person," Ballard said.  "Even though that experience isn't directly connected with Appalachian, it's still the biggest thing that's happened to me as an adult. Before I had a dog, I was much more anxious about traveling because I just had a cane and I always worried that drivers or other people wouldn't see me. It also takes much longer to travel with a cane than with a guide dog, and it can be isolating because people think there is something wrong with you. Once I got a dog all of those things changed."

Members of the Saint Bernard family, Bernese are bred to be rescuers. They are known to be tenderhearted, thoughtful and somewhat reserved, and they take correction easily.

"Now, when I travel I feel safer and more confident. I can travel more quickly, and people are much more likely to approach me. It's a great way to start a conversation. Also, it's easier for professors to understand what I mean when I say that I can't see. Sitting closer to the front won't help. It's very difficult to imagine the loss of a sense or an ability unless you've experienced it yourself, so understanding what it's like for another person is cognitively challenging for most people. The guide dog is a helpful metaphor for that."

Lisa Emery, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, said. "I've been very lucky to have Meredith as a research assistant in my lab, which she's been doing for two semesters now.

"Recchi was definitely a novelty to me at first, but besides the click of her claws and the occasional tufts of fur left in the lab, Recchi's presence just seems routine now. I think Recchi does exactly what an assistance dog should; her quiet, unobtrusive guidance allows Meredith's character and abilities to shine. When I think of Meredith, I think of her cheerfulness, curiosity, kindness and intelligence before I think of her visual impairment. Those are the qualities that I know will allow Meredith to succeed and follow her heart's desires in the future, with Recchi by her side to help."

"Having Recchi has changed my perception of the world. Now, I have less frustration and worry. My quality of life has improved so much that I can actually appreciate the things around me," Ballard said.

There are so many things Ballard wants to do, but right now she's concentrating on her education.

"I'd like to focus on something like disability law or civil rights law because I want to have a positive impact on someone else's life. Whether I'll do that through working at a law firm or teaching or working for a nonprofit organization, I can't say," she said.

Maranda Maxey, director of ODS, said, "Meredith is one of the most inspirational students I have ever worked with; she has unparalleled drive, passion, determination and tenacity. She sees challenges as opportunities for growth and gives nothing less than her best. Her style, smile and sense of humor and gratitude draw people to her. There is a very bright road ahead for this exceptional young woman."

To learn more about MIRA, go to http://www.mirausa.org/. To learn more about Appalachian's Office of Disability Services, visit http://www.ods.appstate.edu.