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From blind, a call for awareness

The Baltimore Sun

ROCKVILLE -- Calling 911 for help can get complicated when the person in need is blind and has a guide dog.

Police might be reluctant to come into a house until the dog is put away. On the other hand, when the knock comes at the door, the blind person's ability to verify the officer's identity is limited, said many of those attending a conference yesterday sponsored by Maryland Area Guide Dog Users.

Informing the 911 dispatcher of the guide dog's presence can help, as can calling the dispatcher back to confirm the name of the officer, some offered.

That issue and others were raised during the "Partnerships with Law Enforcement" conference. The one-day conference was part of the "Canine Partnership Series" - the first in a series of five sessions planned this year and next on relations between the blind and the broader community.

"This gives us a chance to talk about the issues," said Gary Norman, president of Maryland Area Guide Dog Users Inc.

Participants included retired Baltimore City police agent Eugene Cassidy, who was blinded in 1987 when he was shot twice in the head by a man he was trying to arrest.

Cassidy, who began using a guide dog a year after the shooting, spoke to the group of about 40 people about his experience with becoming blind and about how blind people can work more effectively with police.

Cecilia Warren, vice president of the guide dog users group, said yesterday's conference was designed to raise awareness among its members about how to get help from the police, and to improve how police respond to blind people and their use of guide dogs.

"We want to raise the sensitivity of law enforcement to issues pertaining to guide dogs," said Warren, who lives in Crofton.

Warren said attacks on guide dogs by other dogs are a growing problem. In some cases, the guide dogs are separated from their owners, she said. "Police have to understand this isn't simply a dogfight" she said. "If something happens to the guide dog, it leaves the [blind person] vulnerable."

She said it's crucial that police understand the importance of a blind person's guide dog. Not only is the dog an expensive investment - at a typical cost of about $50,000 - but the dog also should never be separated from its owner, she said.

Lucia Ruvolo, 52, who had glaucoma as a child and became completely blind at 24, said she attended the session because she wanted to exchange ideas with the law enforcement professionals.

She said she hopes to arrange similar conferences closer to her home in Herndon, Va. "It's about educating both sides about what it takes to work with the blind community," she said.

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