Stephen Brown enjoys tinkering with his 1967 Mustang GT Fastback.
A former builder of racecar motors, he moved to the Fort Myers area in 1990. The 53-year old former Indianapolis resident loves landscaping and nurtures sixty to seventy plants on his lanai, along with an eight -foot trellis with climbing vines and roses. Married to his wife Vicki for ten years, “Hawkeye” as he has been nicknamed, even enjoys an occasional day on Fort Myers Beach. What’s so unique about all this? Stephen Brown is blind.
Legally blind since 1972, Brown lost the remainder of his sight between 1988 and 1989. He is a program graduate of Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc., located in Palmetto. His dog Ace has been his eyes since 1992.
“I called it boot camp,” Brown says jokingly, referring to the twenty-six days of intense schooling required to graduate from the program. “They’re great people, and there is no charge for the program.”
Established in 1982, the sole purpose of Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc. is to provide professionally trained guide dogs to the blind at no cost to the recipient. The primary facility is located on 24 acres in Palmetto. In addition to housing a breeding kennel, the program has an on-site kennel for dogs first entering the program and one for adults to be trained in their usage of the dogs. The Freedom Walk, a series of paved sidewalks and training obstacles is an additional benefit.
“This helps teach guide dog users how to curb a dog in a city,” Brown explains.
Labrador Retrievers are the primary breed used. Golden Retrievers, Australian Shepherds, German Shepherds, and Collies have been used as well. Their first training comes from puppy trainers who keep them for a year and teach them simple commands. At twelve months the dogs go to the program and stay with one trainer until graduation.
A puppy trainer housebreaks the puppy and teaches his basic commands like "Sit" and "Stay". This is actually called "Sit-Staying" the dog, and is sometimes a telltale sign of how well the dog will learn additional commands.
Once in the guide dog training program with a blind person, the dog learns additional commands, and how to help their master cross streets, use public transportation, and maneuver areas once thought to be unavailable to the blind.
The Freedom Walk, made possible by a series of grants, is a unique part of this training facility. The obstacle courses are designed to mimic real-life situations that the dog and the owner will undoubtedly face. Bridges, traffic lights, bus stops, and street signs are integrated into this part of the training plan. Created in five phases, each phase becomes a bit more difficult, and incorporates a variety of "under-footing" situations. This is similar to a sighted person learning to safely navigate on slippery sidewalks or sidewalks where construction is taking place or pavement has become loose.
When asked if Ace accompanies him everywhere he goes he replied, “Everywhere but in the car when I’m behind the wheel.” A chuckle followed.
Employed by the State of Florida as a clerk specialist, Brown is assisted by a special scanner, designed to translate written material from his computer screen into a voice computer. However, he counts on Ace to assist him with almost everything else.
“We do just about anything most people do,” he explains. “Ace loves the beach. I throw a tennis ball into the water. He likes to surf and retrieve the ball. On his first visit to the beach he thought the waves were stairs, and tried to climb them almost like one would use an escalator.”
Although he has never been hassled on Fort Myers Beach, residents living on or near other beaches have accosted Brown for having Ace accompanying him along the shoreline. However, Public Law 413.08 guarantees users of guide dogs unlimited access to all places.
“I’ve taken to carrying a wallet sized copy of 413.08 with me to clarify my rights to people who question Ace’s presence on the beach,” he adds.
Kimberly Marlow, Development Director of Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc., says of Brown, “Each year Southeastern selects a Volunteer Graduate of the Year. Stephen Brown was awarded this honor at our annual Walk-a-thon. He is a very dedicated individual who provides great support to the blind community. As a Southeastern graduate he has chaired our Graduate Council and has worked very hard in educating the public about guide dogs and the blind.”
Brown visits grade schools to explain to children how important it is not to disturb a guide dog while “at work”.
“A hard thing to do,” he explains, “is to make people understand that asking to pat the dog is very distracting to the dog. He’s working.”
When this happens, Brown politely explains after “sit/staying” the dog that it is always best not to touch a guide dog in these situations.
He does, however, comment that he has better luck in reaching adults through educating their children. While recently walking through the aisles of a local store he heard a child say to his mother, “Just ignore it, Mom. That’s a working dog.”
Southeastern is funded solely through public contributions. The Fort Myers Beach Lion’s Club actively contributes to this funding. They also provide hands-on volunteering.
“The Lions have been invaluable,” Kimberly Marlow states. “In addition to their financial support, the Lions have and continue to provide countless hours of volunteer time to our organization. We are very proud of and thankful to the Lions.”
Offering a little bit of Ace’s history Brown explains, “A tennis tournament in Bradenton raised funds to sponsor the litter of Yellow Labs. That is where the name “Ace” comes from. His sister Deuce is a Drug Enforcement Agent’s dog at Miami International Airport.”
Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc. has opened many doors to the blind in Florida. Stephen Brown is living proof of the many benefits their program provides.
He adds, “I lead a fairly normal life.”