Emily Simone and Cyndi Davis are both long-time GDB employees. Emily is as a Senior Field Manager based out of our California campus, and Cyndi is a Master Instructor at our Oregon campus. Both are Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialists (COMS), and have worked for years with blind students who have a faced a variety of challenges above and beyond their lack of vision.
Every so often, a visually impaired client comes along who is so inspirational and impressive that even the wisest and most experienced instructors are forever changed by the experience. And if ever there was a student who was the personification of the old adage, “Attitude is Everything,” it would be a young man named Noah Al Hadidi, who touched both of these veteran Guide Dog instructors in the most profound of ways.
This is his story, and that of his new best friend, a beautiful female black lab Guide Dog named “Amiga,” as recounted by Emily and Cyndi.
Emily: When I first learned of the background of this potential GDB student, I was uncertain we could serve him – there were so many obstacles to be overcome that I wasn’t sure it was possible. From what I read in his initial application, Noah Al Hadidi was born in the Middle East - Muscat, Oman, and he lost his eyesight at the age of 7 months due to a genetic eye disorder. Because of the lack of schooling for the disabled in Oman, at the age of 7 he was taken from his family to an institution for the blind in Bahrain, where he spent the next ten years. At the age of 18, he went to Saudi Arabia to work for a company that develops new technology and software for the blind. It was in this setting that he was given a scholarship to come to the United States to study computer science, thanks to the wonderful support from the folks at Lions International.
When he moved to the U.S., Noah did not speak a word of English. He started at Arkansas State University in 2009, and then transferred to Colorado State University’s Ft. Collins campus in 2010. Noah thrived in these educational settings and it was in Ft. Collins that he first was exposed to service animals, and heard about Guide Dogs for the Blind.
He applied to GDB in the Fall of 2010, and I met him not long after at his dorm near the CSU campus. He was still learning his way around the campus and during the cane assessment, he demonstrated an impressive confident travel technique, despite very little formal mobility training. He was undaunted by the prospect of learning how to live and work with a dog and his positive attitude was captivating. I instinctively felt that he would be an excellent candidate for a Guide Dog, but his lack of knowledge of basic dog care, handling and rudimentary mobility travel skills came into question.
I recommended a Continued Assessment for Noah, which is a three-day program where students are brought to one of our campuses and given a more in-depth review of their travel and dog handling skills. Noah was given the green light for this “second look,” and that’s when Cyndi entered the picture.
Cyndi: My first contact with Noah was by phone in December before the Continued Assessment class that was scheduled for January of 2011. He was difficult to contact, he didn’t return phone calls. When I was finally able to speak to him, his answers were short and non-committal. That was not the best way to get started for me, as I was already a little leery about any person’s ability to rise above the multitude of obstacles that this young man faced.
And it wasn’t just the physical challenges – the cultural implications for a person of a Middle Eastern background turning to a dog for help and safety were as far removed from his life experience as could be imagined. Not only had Noah never owned a dog, he had never spent more than a few minutes in passing in the same room as a dog. In that part of the world, companion animals are very rare – and oftentimes the only contact with dogs was with the strays running in the streets. Here in America, even if you didn’t grow up with a companion animal, it wasn’t a foreign concept – chances are you had some kind of positive connection with animals, be it with a friend or neighbor, or even what you saw on TV. For Noah, there was NO contact.
After we finally connected, Noah casually made mention that finals week had just finished – and my own recollection of what the trauma of finals week was like came rushing back to me. Now factor in that Noah was totally blind, had only been speaking English for two years, and had to rely on a reader to take his exams – no wonder he was hard to get a hold of and not very conversational! As far as I was concerned, Noah had passed my first test, with flying colors.
Emily: Cyndi and I spoke often in preparation for Noah’s arrival in Oregon for his assessment. My biggest reservations were with his Orientation and Mobility skills and his lack of exposure to dogs. His traveling skills were unorthodox, showing a lack of training rather than inability. The sum total of his experience with dogs was from friends he had made at Colorado State University who were guide dog users.
Cyndi: In preparing for Noah’s assessment at our Oregon campus, my purpose was clear: immerse Noah in all things dog! So, after picking him up at the Portland Airport and settling him in to his private room at the dorm, I introduced him to “Nectarine,” a small black Labrador Retriever who was nearing the end of her training. His first task was to give her a bath – and I believe that was the first time I noticed Noah’s infectious smile. It lit up the whole room, and you couldn’t help but smile yourself when you were under its influence.
His first walks with her were a bit awkward, as to be expected, but even with his discomfort he sported that ear-to-ear grin. He spent the next two days with “Nectarine” – and without hesitation proceeded to feed, pet, praise, play, keep her under control, relieve and pick up after her. He was a natural! His questions were endless, and our questions for him were endless as well. How will your family feel about this decision? Do you plan on taking this dog with you to Oman? If so, how do you see that going? It was clear that he had thought long and hard about how a dog would change his life.
Noah completed his assessment with some homework, including additional O&M lessons that GDB helped secure for him in Colorado. Once completed, Emily visited him once again and to no one’s surprise, all went as planned and Noah was scheduled to join a class in late May back at the Oregon campus.
I was delighted to find that I was one of the three instructors assigned to the Noah’s class, where he was joined with five other visually impaired students. I was there on the first day of class when Noah met the friendly and super affectionate little black lab named “Amiga” selected to be his guide – and there was that incredible smile again. Noah was instantly taken with this sweet young pup, and reveled in the fact that there he was, a man of Middle Eastern descent, on the edge of an Oregon forest, in a town called Boring, paired up with a frisky Lab whose name was Spanish for friend! How perfectly international was that?
Over the next two weeks, Noah and his fellow students spent hours learning how to work with their new Guide Dogs. Noah was paired with another student for our daily trips, a slight girl of Spanish extraction – and although they were both young, and had faced challenges as small children that many of us would shrink from, they came out the other side with those infectious smiles.
During a caravan ride to one of our many varied training excursions on the streets of Portland, I used the word “slimy” to describe what I thought avocado juice would taste like. “What does this ‘slimy’ mean?” asked Noah, “explain it to me.” So, for the next 45 minutes, we tried to come up with more examples and descriptions of slimy – from a slug out in the rain, to a mashed banana, to a worm – and by the end of the day, we all were laughing about our new-found understanding of the many depths of the word “slimy.”
And, no matter the task, no matter the challenge we faced as we walked the streets of Portland, learning how to communicate with his new buddy “Amiga,” there was that brilliant smile.
He talked about his dreams and aspirations – of some day having a family, having a girlfriend – and of returning to Oman some day to help the children in his homeland. In his culture, he explained, blind people are not shunned; they are protected and kept away from challenges. It was his fondest hope to be able to bring the same kind of freedom and independence he was experiencing with a Guide Dog, so that children like he once was could also feel the thrill of accomplishment and expanding their lives.
Emily: Noah is now home with “Amiga” and they have been successfully working together for a year. Noah has consulted with me on many occasions with routine questions about normal dog behaviors that he did not understand or had not experienced. Yet, Noah is bright and sensible and has quickly grasped how a dog learns and thinks and their progress has been exceptional. He is an inspiration to others and he absolutely loves working and living with a Guide Dog. Noah will remain in the U.S. for several more years as he focuses on his goal of obtaining a Ph.D. in computer science. He may move back to Oman at some point, and if he does, he’ll be the first guide dog user in that country. He is not afraid of the challenge and hopes other blind and visually impaired people in Oman may be inspired to follow in his footsteps.
We are so impressed with Noah’s independent spirit and infectious personality. He inspires everyone who meets him and we are proud he has a GDB dog by his side. Noah is going to take the world by storm and we will be there to support him!