Only three people with visual impairment in Limerick avail of the service of a guide dog, Lean Kennedy is one of them.

Aine Fitzgerald

Reporter:

Aine Fitzgerald

UP until the age of 13 Lean Kennedy had perfect vision.

UP until the age of 13 Lean Kennedy had perfect vision.

No one in her family had any eye problems. She drank in her surroundings like any other teenager.

However, just as she prepared to go into second year at Laurel Hill Colaiste in the city life began to change for Lean from Raheen. It started with her parents John (now deceased) and Myra noticing her squinting at the television. Twenty years later and she has only five per cent vision in her right eye. She is totally blind in her left eye.

A rare condition, “a one in a million situation” as she describes it, means that the 33-year-old now has a new pair of eyes - ‘Murphy’, an eight year old German shepherd/golden retriever cross.

Wherever Lean goes, Murphy leads the way. For the past six and a half years, he has accompanied her on buses, trains, even planes.

“He has brought me full circle,” smiles Lean as she sits on a sofa in the lobby of the South Court Hotel.

“Like today,” she continues, “my sister dropped me off in the car park and I said to him: ‘find the door’ and off he goes and finds the door. Whether it’s going to the shops or going into town to get my hair done, he is guiding me every step of the way.”

When Lean initially started experiencing difficulties with her sight she visited various eye specialists and they were unable to pin point what the problem was. In her first week in second year she couldn’t see the blackboard from the back of the room. Within days she couldn’t see it from the front of the room either.

“That’s how it started and it took years for the condition to be diagnosed,” she explains.

Eventually after many examinations and expert opinions, she was diagnosed while still at school with cone-rod dystrophy, a macular degenerative disease.

“The macula is the area on the retina that holds the cones and the rods which are for your day vision and your night vision. My day vision is a lot worse than my night vision.”

“It turns out it is hereditary. It is a recessive gene and in order for me to have it, both parents have to be carrying it. My sisters probably have it – it just didn’t become active. It’s a one in a million situation, it’s so rare. I’m probably the only one in Ireland with the condition. I’ve never met anyone with it.”

Although her sight was failing considerably, Lean got through secondary school albeit “on my wits”. It was when she began preparing for the Leaving Certificate that she started to worry about what the future held in store for her. Would her condition deteriorate? What career should she chose? Would she have a career at all?

Lean ended up studying Arts in UCC majoring in English and minoring in psychology and with the guidance of the disability support office started to realise that there were avenues open to her. When she finished her degree she went on to do a diploma in public relations. And soon she was offered a job in the marketing department of Cork Opera House. However, the weekend she was supposed to start her new job she suffered a retinal detachment in her left eye and a retinal tear in her right eye.

“It was a Saturday evening and I was in a shop buying chewing gum when I saw a flash of light, I thought someone had taken a photo. I knew by the shop assistant that he hadn’t seen any flash.”

Despite having three operations in 2002, the sight in her right eye deteriorated and the sight in her left eye never returned.

“They just couldn’t save the sight in the left eye. They were able to save the eye in that I don’t have a fake eye which is a good thing for cosmetic reasons.”

Today Lean is unable to recognise people’s face and can’t read books very well – “everything I get is on audio”. Her peripheral vision however, is good. “I can see movement and I can make out that people are coming in and out of that door all the time,” she says of the electronic doors at the hotel lobby.

“I can see a lot better at night time. A lot of the time I will function from memory. I will remember where the door, table and chairs are”.

Following the surgeries a steadfast Lean, took up her position at Cork Opera House but soon found that she was “really struggling”.

“I was bumping into everyone and was finding it so hard to know when it was safe to cross the road. It was so stressful.”

The logical step was to start using a cane, but for a young woman in a world which places much emphasis on appearance, it was a big step to take.

Lean undertook a two-week long cane training programme at the training centre for the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind on Model Farm Road in Cork in April 2003.

While the cane boosted her confidence no end and lessened the day-to-day-stress involved in getting out and about, the streets would still throw up obstacles that even the cane couldn’t conquer.

“When I was out with the cane one day, I walked into a ladder – someone left a ladder on the street. I was using the cane properly but it went in under the ladder. I walked head first into the ladder. It fell on top of me. “

The incident, she recalls, “really knocked my confidence”. It happened on a Friday and Lean didn’t leave her apartment for two days. That’s when she thought about getting a guide dog.

Lean underwent a three-week guide dog training course, again at the centre in Cork and is now the access and education officer with Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind.

While Lean admits that she still has her tough days, the training along with her acceptance of her condition means she is now well equipped to get on with her life.

“I think when you acquire a disability in later life, you go through a grieving process because you are losing something that is very important. At the beginning you are in shock about it, you are in denial, you get angry, you get low about it, even depressed. But the end result is you accept it. And when you accept it, when you don’t fight it any more, there is no looking back.”