Learning Ally Blog: Access and Achievement


Now more than ever, people with learning and visual disabilities are flourishing in the classroom, launching productive careers and becoming assets in their communities. This blog spotlights remarkable individuals who demonstrate that having a visual or print disability is no barrier to educational success.

Dear Stranger, my Guide Dog is a Representation of Me.
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October 23, 2017 by Jhara Navalo

by Caitlin Mongillo, College Success Program mentor, and blogger

Dear Stranger,

I forgive you.

I forgive you for only seeing the dog by my side and not the smile on my face. I forgive your comments on his gorgeous coat, and not on my straightened hair or meticulously applied eye shadow. I forgive you for complementing his exemplary training, rather than my Master’s degree or generous spirit. I don't forgive you for your hand reaching out to touch his shoulder, your whistle to get his attention, that crust of proffered bread that you absolutely needed to toss to him. Just as I am honest with you about his propensity for diving into any body of water he sees, I’ll be candid with you and tell you it’s taken me a bit of time to get to this place of both forgiveness and understanding. For, dear stranger, it isn’t always easy to hold the same conversation eighteen times a day. Sometimes, I feel like I even dream the phrases please don’t pet him, he’s working, actually he’s a yellow lab, not a golden retriever, and I’ve had him for two and half years now, I say them so often throughout the course of the day.

When you are accompanied by a lovable dog, the questions come with the territory. If I want to run and grab a cup of tea on my lunch break, I know that I may want to budget five minutes of extra time for discussions with people on the street about dog behavior or how it was possible that my dog and I independently crossed a busy intersection. By now, I am used to the questions; whenever possible, I try to be polite and use the opportunity to educate another person about blindness or guide dogs. However, sometimes I am in a rush, and I am not as generous in my responses as I should be. At those times, I ask your forgiveness, dear stranger.

I want to be a spokesperson for my community, but sometimes I am harried, just like you, and forget the position that my minority status affords me. When you are accompanied by a guide dog, you are always on display. There are times when I leave my dog at home, just so my husband and I can enjoy a date together without consistent comments about my dog, his training, or his behavior. I understand, dear stranger, that you may really want to engage me in conversation about my dog, but sometimes I just want to enjoy the sun on my face or my book or a cup of tea. There are times when my dog is distracted by a bird or a sound or a friendly passerby, and I need to correct him with a firm word or a tug on his harness. Dear stranger, I know sometimes you’ve witnessed these corrections, and sometimes you have not understood why I have issued them. I ask, in those times, for your understanding. I assure you, my dog’s feelings have never been hurt by a firm reminder to shape up and I can promise you that I have undergone extensive training to deliver a tug on his leash which will not, in any way, hurt him. Try to remember that he is my eyes, and if he is distracted we can both be put into dangerous situations.

When you work with a guide dog, you need to always be aware of what your partner is up to. Sometimes this can mean plucking a half-masticated piece of food out of your dog's mouth, or interrupting a conversation with friends at dinner to reposition your dog under a table. It can look like running through a blizzard in the biting February dawn to take your dog out because he is sick, or spending your last $40 on dog food over clothes and coffee. Having a guide dog means being aware of your environment. I often ask myself if a location is too loud, too crowded or seems unwelcoming for my dog. Having a guide dog means you don’t always get to put your own needs first, because there is a furry being attached to you who counts on you just as much as you do on them.

Dear stranger, please understand that having a guide dog takes work. Applying to receive a guide dog in the United States is often compared to applying for university. There are applications to fill out, letters of recommendation which need to be written for you, interviews to be conducted with program staff and more medical forms than I care to remember. And, after all that, sometimes a guide dog school may not accept you. If they do, you then need to wait for a period of time between several weeks and several months for a dog whose temperament, walking speed and personality match your own.

Then, you will attend a training program, most of the time away from home and family, for a period of between two and four weeks. Though your meals, lodging and travel expenses will be completely free, you will have to walk several miles a day, wake up at the crack of dawn, and learn an entirely new way of traveling. If it sounds, dear stranger, a bit like boot camp, it is. The blind or visually impaired individuals you see walking on the street with guide dogs have been extensively trained. If we might look confused sometimes, dear stranger, it is fine, even encouraged, to ask us if we need help or some directions. However, please do not grab our dogs or explain to them the directions, we are the captain of the team and will need to relay your information to our dogs in the way we have been taught.

If you’re thinking it’s a lot of work to be partnered with a guide dog, you would be correct. It takes time and dedication and awareness to make a successful team. Sometimes, the guide dog lifestyle is downright gross. However, for many individuals, it is the lifestyle we choose. For all the moments that I have to reach into my dog’s mouth to pull out a wad of gum or remind a member of the public for the twenty-second time in one day not to call to him as he’s working, there are far more equally glorious moments of partnership. I wouldn’t trade the gross, the taxing, the tiring times for anything, because it means I have had just as many moments of safe street crossings, indications to sets of stairs I could not see and flawlessly remembered routes.

Dear stranger, I ask for your understanding. For the moments when I have been curt or unappreciative or not as patient with you. I hope you can see that choosing to work with a guide dog is not easy, but, for me at least, it is altogether worthwhile. I need you to know, dear stranger, that I forgive you too. For all the times you have failed to see me, forgotten to compliment me, or only asked after my dog, I gladly excuse that. I choose to take your compliments towards my dog as a reflection on me. After all, it is I who keep him clean, practices his obedience with him, and ensures that he is behaving appropriately. By you notice his remarkable training, you are reminding me, indirectly, of all the time I have put in to make sure he is the dog you witness in your business; quiet, sweet, and incredibly intelligent. My dog, in so many ways, is the self I want always on display. I am proud every day of his affection for others, his zest for life and his unending loyalty. So, dear stranger, I understand your awe when you see him, and I feel the very same way. He is, really and truly, pretty spectacular.

Sincerely yours,

A girl and her dog

More about the author:

Caitlin MongilloCaitlin Mongillo is a social worker and program director at an unemployment agency in Bridgeport, CT. Currently, Caitlin works with people with disabilities and homeless families to assist them in accessing training, resources, and education to assist in attaining steady employment. Caitlin received her MSW in 2013 from Stony Brook University and her BA in English and secondary education in 2010 from Manhattanville College.

Caitlin spends her free time reading, writing, and hanging out with family and friends. She loves to travel and learn new things. She is excited to share her educational journey with the next generation of blind students and hopes that her experiences, both good and bad, will be able to help other students as they progress through higher education.

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The Joys and Perils of Guide Dogging
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October 23, 2017 by Jhara Navalo

by Alecia Ucciferri, College Success Program Mentor and Avid Blogger

Dear 85% of the People I’ve Met in the past 6 years,

I forgive you.

For devouring me with your eyes every time I walked into a room. For announcing me as an exhibit. For withholding from me the freedom to be known. For blatantly disregarding my requests and my safety. For the guilt trips and the invasive questions and the forgetfulness of my personhood. I forgive you. You didn’t know what you were doing.

And neither did I. The first time I traveled with my guide dog at night, I was overwhelmed to tears with a sense of liberty. I weaved effortlessly with her through mazes of tables and poles and people, none of which I could discern through the darkness. She faithfully alerted me to street corners and uneven sidewalks and obstacles; nobody cooed and nobody stared. I felt confident and unhindered and empowered.

And I don’t regret having gotten her. But when I left the town where we trained—where life was on pause and everyone was accustomed to the sight of cute guide puppies—things were different. For my first three years with Brownie, I spent the vast majority of my time on a small college campus in the middle of nowhere. Within two weeks of her arrival, everyone was used to Brownie’s existence and educated on service dog etiquette. During the day, I hardly needed her, and at night her guide work was inconsistent. But I loved not having to wait for my eyes to adjust before maneuvering a crowded room and not having to struggle to see stairs. She quickly found doors and empty pathways. It was a substantial amount of work to care for her and to maintain her training, but she was helpful. Besides, I loved her, and surely it would all pay off when we moved to a big city, right?

In the fall of 2014 I relocated to Dallas, Texas. I am pretty extroverted and always surrounded by people and, as it is usually not feasible to use a guide dog and talk with friends at the same time, it was common for me to have Brownie with me but not end up using her much. She was also slowly beginning to develop a lot of anxiety, which made her guide work tentative and halting, and eventually rendered her unable to travel in cars without being terrified. And this was not my tiny private college anymore: I was in the vicinity of new people almost every day. And all of them loved dogs; all of them “just couldn’t help” but caress/talk to her; all of them had a story about their pet or a question about my blindness or a comment about her appearance. And yet, somehow, at the same time, none of them saw me. It wasn’t just you. It was normal. And you couldn’t have known you were the twelfth one that day.

Brownie was a pretty good guide, but I hated the constant attention so much that, for the first time in my life, I came to dread social gatherings; for the first time in my life, I thought you were my enemy. You existed to assail me with discomfort whenever I entered the public sphere—to show up and say something that would strip me of my ability to enjoy a lively party or a beautiful concert; worse than that, you existed to convince me that I was not a person beyond her—that my essence was in her and that I was not worth knowing apart from her. Sometimes, Twelfth Person That Day, I was terse with you and impatient. Sometimes, I hated you for your insensitivity and inconsiderateness, without ever having engaged in a real conversation with you. I derided you with my friends and fantasized about angry Facebook posts I could write in your honor. You made a thoughtless comment one morning at Walmart, but I made a consistent decision not to love you. Please forgive me. I didn’t know what I was doing.

And it’s over now. I retired my guide dog in July, and have been using a cane ever since. It is not able to guide me through mazes of tables or quickly locate exits, but I am again overwhelmed with a sense of liberty. The truth is, canes just don’t incite acts of unintentional dehumanization the way dogs do. No one comments; no one stares. For the first time in six years, you’re remembering to ask my name! When you initiate conversations with me now, it’s about the weather or my work or my life. It’s refreshing to be able to stow away my mobility device at my leisure, and to not need to constantly be monitoring the behavior of an animal or of the people who take interest in it, but it is most of all refreshing to finally be seen.

With no resentment now, I recognize that some of you are wondering, “But how do you get around with out her?” Because, I confess, I was often too impatient with your “ignorance” to quell it, even when you asked. Guide dogs are trained to avoid obstacles, while canes are designed to detect them. Neither a cane nor a dog can function in place of a personal sense of direction: just as a cane is unable to take me to science class on command or tell me how to cross a street, neither is a guide dog capable of performing those tasks. Each, then, comes equipped with its own advantages and disadvantages. While a cane is unable to discern a pathway through a restaurant, for instance, most dogs are unable to reliably identify signposts or texture changes that may be extremely helpful landmarks for a blind pedestrian. While a dog can be taught to follow people or locate specific objects on command, a cane requires no training or maintenance whatsoever. A dog will stop to alert you to a patch of uneven sidewalk; a cane will show you the exact nature of its unevenness. It’s a preference thing.

I’m thankful to be able to have this conversation with you, now that I’m slightly removed from the experience. But I’m even more thankful that, as a cane user for the time being, I can participate in my community knowing that there will be no Twelfth Person to have it with tomorrow.

More about the author:

Alicia_UUcciferri Program Mentor and Blogger   Alicia is a 25-year-old native of New Jersey who currently resides in Texas. She discovered her love of singing and expressive arts at a fairly young age, and grew up involved in numerous choirs and theatrical productions. She received her BMUS in voice from the Houghton College Greatbatch School of Music in 2014 with non-music elective studies in linguistics and minors in Spanish, French and intercultural studies. She went on to obtain her MA in applied linguistics and hopes to combine her love of singing with her love of linguistics by working in both capacities in the Middle East. Relating with people is one of her favorite things in the world, and so she is incredibly excited to get to do that as a mentor with the Learning Ally College Success Program!

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Learning Ally Produces Award Nominated Audiobooks
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September 29, 2017 by Jhara Navalo

SOVAS VoiceOverLogo

The Society of Voice Arts and Sciences (SOVAS) has nominated two Learning Ally audiobooks for Best Voice Over Audiobook Narration for Children’s Pre-School books. Our volunteer-narrated-books, Wonder and The Lorax, have received this prestigious honor and we are grateful to our voiceover community for their hard work and dedication. Wonder was Learning Ally's top title for the 16/17 school year, added to 10,236 virtual bookshelves across the country. The nominations came in just in time for Wonder's premiere November movie release date.

All Wonder Audiobook Voiceover actors The Lorax VoiceOver actor Thank you to all of our voiceover community volunteers who recorded Wonder providing award-worthy content for our legions of readers across the nation. Here are our volunteer voice over community audiobook narrators shown here from left-to-right: Lisa Biggs did the voice for Summer, Holly Franklin did the voice for Via, Talon Beeson did the voice of Justin, Tucker Meek did the voice of Auggie, Gabe Eggerling did the voice of Jack, and Finley Smith did the voice of Miranda - not shown here, Erin Setch and Michael King. Thank you to Jay Preston for his work recording DR. Suess' The Lorax.

Watch behind the scenes magic happen:

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Across two Novembers: An Interview with a Blind Bibliophile
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September 29, 2017 by Mir Ali

By David L. Faucheux, Lily Mordaunt, and Kristen Witucki

At Learning Ally, we are constantly sharing news of our members with each other and our BVI Specialist, Mary, shared a particularly interesting story about a published author named David Fauchoux. David authored Across Two Novembers: A Year in the Life of a Blind Bibliophile, sharing his experience as a person born with cataracts and limited vision. We decided to call David and set up an interview. The interview went something like this......

Lily Mordaunt: Can you describe your visual impairment and how it influenced the idea for this book?

David Fauchoux: My visual impairment influenced both my life and my book. I was born with cataracts. Surgery was done soon after with the hope of helping me to have useable vision. While usable, my vision was never going to let me read print very well. At about age 11, I developed secondary glaucoma. I continued to lose vision and to cope with this loss. It has directly or indirectly caused several health concerns in which I must deal with even today. I do speak of this in my journal.

I suspect that vision or its loss was a major factor in my love of books. Books saw for me, took me places, and entertained me when I was home from the school for the blind during summer vacations.

Because I have not had a traditional work history, I was at my wit's end. A friend asked me to review her recently published journal and the rest was history. I thought I could write something similar and I did. I hope that while I share through my journal my love of audio and braille books, I also convey to the reader a bit of my life and of my trying to come to terms with these challenges. I wish my story had been one of those tales such as that told in a recent book by a blind lawyer/businessman or an earlier orological book by a noteworthy blind rock-jock. But we must work with the cards we are dealt as best as we can. This journal was my salute to books, to libraries, and a way to say thank-you to the many authors, narrators (NLS, commercial, and volunteer), and support staff who made possible the audio and braille books that have helped me structure my world.

Lily: What aspects of Lafayette makes it home for you, and how did it influence the year you chronicled?

David: Lafayette is where I have lived for nearly 25 years. I moved to Lafayette, Louisiana in January 1992, to take a parttime job teaching braille to deaf-blind individuals. I eventually left this position to pursue a Master's Degree in Library and Information Science at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. I returned to Lafayette where I had several church friends. Family lived an hour away. If Lafayette can be said to have influenced my book, it would have to be because of its love of food. This love I also share.

Note the many mentions of local restaurants and even a food-related radio program hosted by the Lafayette Food Junkie.

Lily: What was inspirational or memorable about the time period you chose for your book?

David: Well, I just decided to write and I started on November 16, 2013 and finished on November 15, 2014. It's simply how it turned out. I thought about bringing it up to December 31 but decided not to. The project was starting to become unwieldy. I suppose I could have written something covering a month or even a day. I reference in my epilog two books that did this very thing.

Lily: What is the hardest part of being visually impaired or blind?

David: I wish I could tell you that in the 21st century, there is nothing to it. I have observed changes in my lifetime. I used a slate and stylus, four-track tape player/recorder, and electric typewriter as an undergrad in college. In graduate school, I had a braille notetaking device, talking computer, braille printer, scanner, and basic email. It was amazing how truly incredible this was. To have a good way to take notes—no tapping laboriously on a slate even using grade 3-no playing back a tape player trying to listen to a lecture through assorted noises and coughing, and to email professors to introduce myself even before my courses started. Now, I enjoy many book resources that are only a download away. No shipping free matter or UPS as then.

The iPhone has made many things including travel much easier. Glasses exist now that provide a virtual assistant and guide. But still, for me, the hardest thing is simply trying to find a niche—a lucrative one—and trying to figure out how to handle several health issues. Top-flight medical consultations and concierge physicians cost! The mechanisms of Fibromyalgia Syndrome are still incompletely understood. The intersection of Fibromyalgia and blindness is in desperate need of a scientific traffic signal, audible or not.

I also hope to live long enough to experience a true inversion of the unemployment and employment figures. As best as I can tell the unemployment figures run from 68% to 80% unemployment. This would imply an employment rate of from 20% to 32% with a majority of the employed being underemployed. Do we live in a world where there is a well-employed tenth, even after so many years of advocacy by our several consumer organizations? During the Great Depression, unemployment figures were said to be 25%. Have many blind people been living in a version of The Great Depression?

Lily: What are your goals for the future?

David: Simply to continue to find purpose and meaning.

Possibly after promoting this book, to write a short story or flash fiction series or to research a Canary Island ancestor or write about working on my health issues.

Lily: What message do you hope your book will impart to readers?

David: I want people to read my book and realize that blind people have the same dreams, desires, thoughts, aspirations, and challenges as others do. Blindness, while a challenge, is less so than are the general attitudes of the fully sighted population. While it may not be “normal” to be blind, it should be okay. To paraphrase a famous bit of English literature: Hath not a blind person's hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? ... If you prick us, do we not bleed? I'd add, if you marginalize us, do you not suffer for the potential you discard?

Photo of David Faucheux

To learn more about David and his book, visit www.dldbooks.com/davidfaucheux/

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Putting California Dyslexia Guidelines Into Action
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September 13, 2017 by Monica Haley

Learning Ally’s human-narrated audiobooks have just been listed in the new California Dyslexia Guidelines (CDG) as a recommended reading accommodation by the California DOE. The CDG is the latest addition to the library of state education authored resources for educators who suspect or identify students with a learning disability. The Guidelines offer direct, explicit, and systematic reading instruction, as well as clear and useful direction on the need for, and uses of, accessible educational materials, including audiobooks.

This distinction is an honor we accept gladly to support California educators as they plan to identify struggling readers with dyslexia and provide reading accommodations to transform their reading experience. To assist California educators in this effort, Learning Ally is hosting this webinar and hope you will join us. Register Now!

Ready, Set, Go - Putting Your CA Dyslexia Guidelines into Action

Tuesday, September 26, 2017 at 2:00 PT, Dr. Kathy Futterman, a CA dyslexia expert, will discuss three key areas to implement the CA Dyslexia Guidelines:

  • Guidance in building an effective dyslexia action plan.
  • Showcase of effective models underway in California districts.
  • Proven resources to identify, remediate, and accommodate students with dyslexia.

Photo of Kathy Futterman, text reads: Putting CA Dyslexia Guidelines in action

Ready to Empower More Struggling Readers to Be Confident Learners?

Learning Ally wants to be your school partner. Talk with us about having a 24/7 audiobook library and see how easy it is to manage reading assignments, student’s time-on-task, reading interests and progress monitoring using our super-friendly teacher tools and resources.

Like to have a similar webinar or discussion in your state or with your school or district team? We welcome the opportunity! Call 1-800-221-1098

Learning Ally LogoLearning Ally is a leading nonprofit ed-tech organization that provides over 80,000 human-narrated audiobooks to students who have learning or visual disabilities. Not a member? Find out how to sign up your school today.

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