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Cecil Mason and Cameron Harmon talk with ASU senior Abigail Lanier, who is assisted by a
service dog named Alexa.
Photo submitted

Originally published: 2013-12-16 13:04:49
Last modified: 2013-12-16 13:05:34

Third graders learn about disabilities firsthand

by Staff Reports

Third-grade students at Green Valley School have learned new ways of seeing disabilities and a new way of serving others with the help of Appalachian State University senior Abigail Lanier and her service dog, a black Labrador retriever named Alexa. 

Lanier and Alexa visited the school Tuesday as part of the students' study of disabilities and disability services.

The third-grade teachers at Green Valley, Angie Austin and Laurie Gill, were as enthused as their students about hosting Lanier and Alexa. 

"We've been learning about disabilities and service animals, including reading the writings of Helen Keller and the stories 'Buddy the First Seeing Eye Dog' and 'Barry the Bravest Saint Bernard,'" Austin said, "but there's nothing like visiting with a real person and her service animal to make these lessons come alive."

Students asked prepared questions of Lanier during her visit and she responded to more than 25 of them before time began to run short. The students asked about the challenges of living with a visual impairment, how a service dog helps her and how Lanier's life had changed since getting Alexa. 

Lanier said Alexa had changed her life a great deal.

"It's totally different, it's given me another level of independence," she said. "Alexa has given me a lot of confidence to do things I hadn't done before."

Lanier also said technology helps maintain independence in her daily life. She has an iPhone with a reader that can announce the time, provide her current location and help with routine tasks, and she can dictate instructions to make phone calls, among other features.

In addition to their studies on disabilities, students have been to the school's computer lab to explore Braille, including reading in Braille, learning about its invention and writing their names in Braille with puff paint.

Next spring, the students also will attend a performance of "The Miracle Worker" at Appalachian State University, courtesy of the ASU Office of Arts and Cultural Programs. 

"They've been very generous to provide our third graders and a parent or guardian of each student with free tickets to this wonderful show," Austin said. "We are so thankful for their support."

With the help of four ASU interns, the classes have also used this learning experience for community service through a Pennies for Guide Dogs fundraiser to benefit Guiding Eyes for the Blind, an organization that provides service animals for the visually impaired and provided Alexa for Lanier. 

Service dogs can cost as much as $50,000 each, and donations are what make owning one possible for most people.

Students in Austin's and Gill's classes raised $109.77 for the organization. The check for Guiding Eyes was presented to Lanier during her visit, along with gifts of a special 3-D thank you card, a Green Valley School T-shirt and a stack of student thank you letters.

Students also stood in line to briefly pet Alexa, with harness removed, and speak to Lanier one-on-one.

Lanier has had impaired sight from a young age, and the disability has grown more severe over time, but she did not have a service animal until she went away to college, she said.

Despite the challenges posed by blindness, it's clear she has not allowed this disability to impede her life. 

She lived independently in New York City, St. Paul, Minn., and Washington, D.C., before coming to ASU, and she completed the New York City half-marathon earlier this year.

Lanier will graduate from ASU this month with a degree in music industry studies.

"She is truly an inspiration to all of us here at Green Valley," Austin said.