Like many guide dog users, Marian Maloney was not born completely blind. She was born with a condition known as macular degeneration. While her centre-vision was always poor, in her youth she retained some peripheral vision. Nonetheless, although she was not properly diagnosed until adulthood, she was told, “rather bluntly”, at the age of 12 that she was going blind.
The revelation that she would one day completely lose her sight came as a shocking blow to Marian and her recently-widowed mother, as there was no form of support available at the time for people diagnosed with a visual impairment.
Despite this early setback, Marian resolved not let her visual impairment impact upon her lifestyle any more than it had to. Her lack of centre vision meant that ball sports were beyond her, but she retained a love of brisk walks and Irish dancing – the latter a passion she believes saved her life in those early years.
However, in 2000, Marian decided she needed some help to retain her independence and trained in long cane mobility in Galway.
“I needed some kind of support for my own independence, so I went to the National Council for the Blind and I did long cane mobility here in Galway, and that was the start of me accepting my identity as a blind person,” says Marian.
The long cane, though helpful, and a mobility aid that she still retains, did not give her the freedom to walk as she wished.
Like many people, Marian was not aware that you do not have to be totally blind to avail of a guide dog and, after some persuasion from a friend, she put herself on a waiting list in 2007. She received the call to go to Cork for a free three-week training course in early 2009.
“I love to walk fast and I had to slow down with my cane because my sight was deteriorating and the peripheral vision that I had been depending on wasn’t as good,” she remembers.
When Marian arrived in Cork, she was assessed and brought out walking with a variety of different dogs, big and small, fast and slow, to determine a good match.
From the beginning though, Marian had her heart set on one dog, Yaz, a golden retriever. She admits her Irish dancing background played a part, as she admired his proud stance.
“I liked the way he walked. I suppose the Irish dancing teacher came out in me there again because of the deportment!”
She was encouraged to spend the night with one of the dogs, to see how comfortable she would be with him, and vice-versa.
“I decided I’d sit down on the floor and start talking to him. And I saw that he had the most beautiful head and big, brown eyes; I could see that much. He was really, really good for me,” she recalls fondly.
Luckily, the assessors from Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind agreed and, some weeks later, Marian delightedly received the call saying Yaz was hers if she wanted him.
Taking on a guide dog has been, she says, “the best thing ever I did”. “He is fantastic; he is a perfect worker.”
It has not all been plain sailing, however; Yaz does not like large crowds and often people can unwittingly disorient Marian and Yaz by distracting Yaz or petting him without first asking permission. Despite this, Marian says the general public in Galway have been “absolutely brilliant”.
A dog lover herself, Marian admits that a guide dog is not for every person with a visual impairment. “It’s a very individual decision,” she says, but one that she would “highly recommend”.
Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind cater for anyone over the age of 16 with any visual impairment. No previous experience with dogs is required. For more information, visit www.guidedogs.ie, or lo-call 1850-506300.
Newsworthiness: Marian is a guide-dog user and one of 10,240 people in Ireland who are registered blind. Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind is currently engaged in a campaign to encourage more people to explore the possibility of availing of a guide dog.