A dog-eared lesson in sensitivity Wheelchair athletes, canine co-stars provide 'disability awareness'

November 06, 1995|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Wayne Albrecht lost two-thirds of his hearing through chronic exposure to jet aircraft, but his dog Chelsea helps him "hear" a ringing telephone and a crying baby. And students at Mayfield Woods Middle School in Elkridge, who encountered the pair Friday, were amazed.

Mr. Albrecht was one of seven volunteers and eight dogs from Laurel-based Fidos for Freedom -- a nonprofit organization that trains dogs to work with disabled and elderly people -- who demonstrated their skills to the school's 750 students.

Regular classes were canceled as the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students took turns watching the demonstration in the gym as part of the school's Disability Awareness Project day.

Last week's DAP day was the second at Mayfield Woods since the school opened in 1990, said the school's health educator, Debbie Lange.

In addition to the Fidos demonstration, students saw an exhibition by a wheelchair basketball team. Speakers with such disabilities as cerebral palsy lectured in the classrooms.

"We want the youngsters to meet people who happen to have disabilities and learn how they handle them and have wonderful, interesting lives," said Anne Wade, DAP coordinator for the Howard County school system, which has sponsored disability awareness days since 1985.

Fidos for Freedom has been a popular part of the program. Last year alone, volunteers from the group visited 12,000 Howard County students at more than 20 schools, said Cathleen Cahill, the group's training director.

The group also visits schools in Prince George's, Baltimore and Montgomery counties, but Howard is the only county with an organized disability awareness day, Ms. Cahill said.

The group's eight dogs -- Australian shepherds, Irish setters and collies -- are either "hearing" dogs to help the deaf and hard of hearing, or "service" dogs to help those in wheelchairs and those who have difficulty walking.

In a demonstration for students, Mr. Albrecht's hearing dog Chelsea retrieved a ringing telephone for him and alerted him to a crying baby -- which actually was a doll in a baby seat near a tape recorder.

"One of the things we look for in a dog is his ability to problem-solve," Ms. Cahill told the students. "They may not look like they're working, but they are. If someone in a wheelchair needs something from across the room, it's not a game."

Besides the dogs' basic obedience skills, such as responding to their names, the most captivating part of the exhibition was the dogs' skill at retrieving cans of food, fruit and even a dime.

"It's neat how people get to use the dogs to help them do more things," said Jessica Straud, 13. "That's cool."

After the demonstration, students crowded around Ms. Cahill, her dog Grimm and the other volunteers to ask questions.

"Helping out people with dogs is a great thing," said Robbie Silverman, 12.

"Maybe I'll teach my beagle some tricks," said Leslie Gaynair, 11.

But some of the students didn't seem to care how skillful the dogs were or that they are valued at $10,000 to $15,000 -- they just liked the animals.

"They're so cute," said Merrial Daley, 12. "I just love them."

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