Reporter: Brad Andrews
People either drop their eyes or take notice of the group of students walking down the hall as they pass. It isn’t any of the students they look at but the black dog walking ahead of the young man holding its harness. The dog’s name is Agent and the young man he is leading is Kyle Wallace.
Wallace, 19, is a first year student at Durham’s Colleges Social Service Worker program. He is also an avid hockey fan and player, starting his third season playing in a local league.
Wallace is also blind.
That people notice his guide dog before him is not new to Wallace.
“Generally they react to Agent better than they react to me,” he says with a bit of a smirk. He adds people are more likely to say hi to the dog than him but has adapted to that.
“When girls say ‘Oh he’s so cute’ I’ll say ‘Thanks my dog’s not bad either,’” he is quick to joke and the friends sitting nearby have plenty of examples of his humor. One is about how Wallace answers when a
teacher asks if everyone can see the board.
“I’ll say no.”
While we walk through the hall his friends help by telling Wallace what is coming ahead of him, objects in his way, or by acting as guides in a way Agent couldn’t. Getting around on campus and from class to class is a daily problem for Wallace.
“Luckily I have a great group of friends. They make that possible for me,” he says, but is quick to point out one of them had gotten the group lost the other day. She thought there was an elevator down a hallway and led the group on a long, fruitless search.
“I knew where the elevator was,” Wallace says. After she laughs, his friend asks why he didn’t say anything.
“We wouldn’t have had this story if I stopped you.”
Getting around campus is one of the reasons Wallace got Agent over the summer.
Wallace lost 90 per cent of his sight when he was 11 as a result of his multiple sclerosis. He lost his remaining vision when he was 16. For years he depended on a cane to get around but
after hearing from several other visually impaired people about the benefits of a seeing eye dog he decided to go for it.
“I probably would’ve been scared just coming here with the cane to the college,” he says.
In June, Wallace spent a month away from his Courtice home to take part in a training program for seeing eye dogs in Oakville. It was his first time away from home, and it was hard work. For six days a week, from 8 to 4, he would train with the dog.
“The first couple months was hard, trying to adjust from using the cane for several years to putting that much trust into a dog,” Wallace says as Agent rests at his feet. “Looking back now it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
He says Agent is never really a bad dog and calls him a friend. He says Agent will sometimes get distracted, trying to get at nearby food or paying
attention to other people rather than guiding him. Wallace says that’s not “helpful when I walk into things.”
Agent looked up then and we agreed it was probably a sign he didn’t like the press. When Agent wears his harness people shouldn’t pet him or touch him but when it is off it’s a different story. When Wallace removes it the change is immediate. The dog rises and seeks out attention from his friends and tries to find food.
Wallace isn’t shy, calling himself a social butterfly.
Making friends here at school was a concern for him and his parents. He says his mother was especially worried.
“She was worried about me getting around, getting lost, getting hurt, getting in trouble.”
Despite wanting to prove her wrong, Wallace called his parents his biggest source of encouragement. He is the goalie on a local hockey team for people with disabilities and his mother gets him there and helps him dress for the ice.
His father is the reason he is a goalie now. Originally,
Wallace played forward but wasn’t enjoying it.
“I couldn’t find the puck and at the time I couldn’t skate very well either.”
So after one game he asked the coach if he could play net.
“He just kind of looked at me and blew me off,” Wallace says. His father saw Wallace’s frustration and sought out the coach to argue for the goalie idea. He explained how they played at home, that if
someone stood behind the net and said ‘right’ or ‘left’ Wallace would be fine.
They tried it with another coach on the team, a goalie himself, and Wallace has been playing net ever since. He said he and his goaltending coach became friends on and off the ice but smirked again when asked what happens if someone skates around the net.
“Then he gets hit and I don’t have to worry about it.”
Wallace talked about other worries he has had. The bullying and teasing he’s had to deal with in the past which made coping with his blindness harder.
Having been diagnosed with clinical depression as young as 11 Wallace has had thoughts of suicide in the past. It was worse in elementary school but he says it “made me a little tougher and a little stronger.” The difficult times didn’t end there and he said as late as last April he had gone through some again.
Yet he points to all of this as reasons why he wants to work in social services.
“Due to the disability that I struggle with I thought it be a good idea to help people out,” Wallace says of why he chose the program. He added to wants to offer support to others dealing with disabilities like his friends and family have done for me.
He’s already helping at least one person. Without him it would have been impossible to get Agent to pose for a photo.