Sisters Melinda Craig and Heather Seger are just back from Ohio with their new guide dogs.
“It’s awesome,” said Melinda, 26, sitting in the grass at Fairview Heights’ Moody Park alongside Dandy, a sweet-faced black Labrador retriever.
It was Melinda’s idea last March to search the Internet for guide dogs to help her and her sister get around. Both are legally blind. Melinda’s vision is 20-200; Heather’s is 20-400.
“She asked me what I thought about it,” said brown-haired Heather, 20, of Caseyville. “I said, ‘It would probably help.’ Lately, I have been falling off sidewalks.”
Melinda, of Glen Carbon, had a rough encounter entering a store.
“I had run into a door at Walmart and knocked it off its track. I didn’t see that it hadn’t opened all the way.”
Their mother Angela Seger liked the idea, too.
“It would give them some independence they didn’t have,” said Angela, of Caseyville.
Both sisters have the same condition.
“It gets worse, and it’s genetic,” said Melinda. “Heather can say it better than me.”
“Autosomal recessive hereditary degenerative optic atrophy,” said Heather.
“They found mine when I was 7,” said Melinda. “They found Heather’s when she was 3. It’s not noticeable till you turn about 3. That’s when it decides to show up. My mom and dad (Chuck) had been noticing I was having problems. ... Mom took me in for glasses. It was a doctor at (America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Fairview Heights) who found it. He dilated my eyes. He was looking at the optic nerve. He went and got a book, then went and got a bigger book. He said, ‘I have never seen it before.’ Mom went to pay for the visit. The doctor looked at the secretary and said, ‘We are not charging her. I just had to tell her her daughter is blind.”
“One in 10,000 people are born with it every year,” said Heather. “I did a research paper on it in high school. ... Both parents have to have the gene in order for their children to turn out like us.”
What can they see?
“We can see where you are, but not your eye color, hair color or facial expression,” said Heather.
“If you stuck your tongue out, we wouldn’t know,” said Melinda.
Melinda and Heather’s excellent guide dog adventure began with a July flight to Columbus, Ohio, where Pilot Dogs Inc. is located.
“I was terrified to get on the plane,” said Melinda, her sandy blond hair pulled up into a ponytail. “We had never flown before. It was nerve-wracking to start. Once we took off, I barely noticed we were flying.”
“We had a guy sitting next to us who would crack her up,” said Heather. “When there was turbulance, he said, ‘That’s normal,’ and put her his hand on her arm.”
“He was cracking jokes,” said Melinda. “He pulled stuff that our dad would.”
Training took four weeks. The sisters met their dogs on day three.
“On the first two days, you basically walk the trainer,” said Melinda. “They have a choke collar. You pull the leash and it makes this weird sound. The dog knows ‘I am not supposed to do this.’ The trainer would pretend to be a bad dog that we would basically have to correct.”
Trainers made lessons fun.
“You couldn’t find a more comfortable place to go,” she said.
Pilot Dogs Inc., established in 1950, matches about 150 people with guide dogs each year at no charge. The sisters’ trip, lodging and food were paid for. The organization is supported by public contributions, including support from Lions Clubs, individuals, organizations and corporations.
“The (guide dogs) are available to anyone who meets our requirements: legal blindness and physically and financially able to care for a guide dog,” said Kate Ames, development director.
Melinda and Heather were part of a class of nine.
“We were the youngest there,” Melinda said. “Two had lost their vision in car accidents. Two had retinitis pigmentosa. ...”
Both guide dogs and students face challenges.
The dogs, undergoing training since they were pups, have to adjust to the person they will be guiding, figuring out what that person needs and what they need to be doing. Professional trainers taught them how to navigate busy streets, use revolving doors, escalators and elevators and public transportation.
“It takes quite some time before they become one,” Kate said. “When they pass the achievement walk at the end of four weeks — that we think they will be safe when they go home — it’s a good day.”
Challenges for people include being away from home and the physcial aspect — it’s tiring.
“There’s a lot to learn — handling, putting your trust in a dog,” said Kate.
The most common guide dog is a Lab, but some want a standard poodle, boxer or Doberman.
“There are seven different breeds you can choose from,” said Melinda. “Out of seven, they want you to pick two. After you get there and they see your personality, they match you with a dog. I said I wanted a boxer or a Lab because of how short I am, 5-foot-3 with shoes. I got a Lab. As soon as they brought her to me, that tongue went up my face. I couldn’t have asked for a better dog. ... Dandy is really calm and I am really calm.”
“Me and Maggie, we bounce off the walls,” said Heather, who has a black Lab, too. “I’m hyper. So is she. ... Don’t eat leaves. You are as bad as a baby.” Heather also has a 2-pound chihuahua named Lila.
Now that the sisters are home, they stick to obedience training one or two times a day, five minutes each time.
“When the harness is on, they know to listen,” said Melinda. “They eat once in the morning once in the afternoon. We make sure they have water to drink, and a walk. We make sure they get exercise.”
They coax the dogs along if they need help.
“When Dandy gets on an escalator,” Melinda said, “she will put her front paws on and forget, and kind of stretch out.”
“At night, they are in crates by our beds,” said Heather. “This one, if she loses sight of me, she freaks out, starts wimpering and cries.”
‘I think we have another one’
After Melinda was diagnosed with the degenerative eye condition, the Segers had their two sons and Heather tested.
“No one had any signs,” said mom Angela, who was with the girls and their guide dogs at the park that afternoon, along with two young children she baby-sits. “Heather was only a year old at the time. When Heather went to pre-K, we got her tested again. They said, ‘I think we have another one.’
“I don’t want to say it rocked our world, but it did.”
“Not in a good way,” said Melinda.
“One was bad,” said Angela. “When they said it was both of them, it was almost devastating to me.”
The Segers both carry the gene that caused the condition. To pass it on, their daughters would have to marry someone who carries the same gene. The chances are one in 200,000, said Angela.
“Mindy was our experimental one. By the time Heather came around, we had everything pretty well figured out. We knew from the time Mindy was 2 years old (that something was going on). She would trip over things.”
The Segers raised their daughters “to where they wouldn’t be limited.”
“We told them they could do anything they wanted — except fly a plane or be a heart surgeon,” said Angela. “I didn’t want anyone to say something mean and them to be hurt. We were kind of mean and toughened them up a little bit.”
Grandpa William “Bill” Seger gave Heather the edge when the kids played hide and seek.
“He would sit on the front porch and tell Heather where everyone was hiding,” said Angela.
School was a struggle.
“My biggest challenge was reading,” said Melinda, who liked child care classes and geography. “I couldn’t read the chalkboard or white board. They would have to enlarge and make copies of a lot of my stuff. ... I can’t do math very well and can’t spell worth a darn. ... I passed my classes by the skin of my teeth.”
She graduated from Collinsville High School in 2007.
Heather, who likes drama and writing, is a 2013 graduate of Belleville East.
“I had one English teacher who liked to read the plays,” she said. “‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was in tiny print. He put us in a free reading period and disappeared. He came in at the end of class with a black binder. He had enlarged the type. He said, ‘You can read the play with us.’”
Heather plans to attend Southwestern Illinois College next semester and major in English. Melinda, who teaches Sunday School at Living Water in Cahokia, would like to study medical billing and coding. She and husband Randy live in Glen Carbon with Dandy and their Jack Russell named Buddy.
The sisters, both upbeat, face obstacles with grace and all the good humor they can muster. They notice when people stare.
“If you have a question, come and ask,” said Melinda. “Don’t stand and whisper, we can hear you.”
Finding a job is difficult. So is keeping it.
“God forbid, you work at a grocery store,” said Melinda, who had a cashier job for a few months. “Try being in my line. I had a hard time seeing the register, and seeing how much they owed.”
Doctors predicted the sisters’ vision would stabilize once they hit puberty, but Melinda’s is getting worse.
“At the time, no one knew what we were dealing with. It was just an educated guess,” Melinda said. “... I drove for nine years with a special pair of glasses that have telescopes on top of them. It was interesting. The binoculars were strong enough that I could see detail, lights, stoplights, stop signs. I could tell where people were, but couldn’t drive in the dark. My curfew was before the street lights came on. Heather didn’t drive. Her vision was always slightly worse than mine.”
Melinda gave up her drivers license last year. She has started using audio books.
“Or I use Heather’s Kindle. I put a black screen behind the type and enlarge it as much as possible. There are about 10 words on a page.”
“We really can’t see,” said Heather. “And then there are people who wave their hands in your face. The ones I appreciate are kids. They ask you about it. If you explain, they say, ‘That sucks’ and then they leave.”
Guide dogs are a big help.
“I haven’t tripped over sidewalks in a while,” said Heather.
“I don’t have to watch my feet. I can look straight ahead instead of looking down,” said Melinda. “Getting around has been so much easier since they have been here.”
About Pilot Dogs Inc.
What it is: Nonprofit that trains and furnishes dogs to guide the blind
How it works: Established in 1950, Pilot Dogs provides trained animals to qualified blind folks at no charge. The organization is supported by public contributions, including support from Lions Clubs, individuals, groups and corporations. Volunteers raise the puppies from the time they are 4 to 6 weeks old until they are 12 to 14 months and ready for formal training.
Information: 614 221-6367 or www.pilotdogs.org