Laughing with a friend, a tall blonde visibly groped at her surroundings while ascending a flight of stairs at a posh Los Angeles eatery. Witnessing the awkward display, a fellow patron cast a disapproving glance and asked, “Liquid lunch?”
Those icy words, uttered nearly 20 years ago — but never forgotten — could not have been further from the truth. The blond woman, Lorri Bernson, is legally blind.
Now 50, Bernson recalls the stranger’s ignorant words from her office at the Sylmar campus of Guide Dogs of America (GDA), where she is the nonprofit organization’s media and community liaison. It looks like the workspace of any other person: Towers of boxes occupy the corner, a maze of sticky notes covers her desk, and when her cell phone suddenly emits Bobby McFerrin’s late-’80s hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” she reaches down to silence the tune without missing a beat.
It often throws people — like the businesswoman who, while recently on the phone with Bernson, declared that she didn’t sound blind.
“I knew what she meant,” Bernson said. “I was probably supposed to sound a little more pathetic. I don’t sound like someone who has lost her vision and experienced that loss.”
She attributes her positive outlook largely to how her life changed when she received her first guide dog, Nigel, in 2002. Her current capacity at GDA puts her in the unique position of being able to reassure first-time guide dog users through her own experience.
“I know where they’re coming from, I know what they’ve been through, and I know how much potential their lives have with a guide dog,” said
Bernson, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley attending Temple Beth Hillel.
The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Bernson is one of an estimated 21.5 million Americans over the age of 18 who deal with vision loss, according to a 2010 National Center for Health Statistics report. Of those, more than two-thirds are under 65.
Bernson first encountered vision problems in 1994, when diabetic retinopathy cast a cloudy haze over her right eye. Nearly 50 percent of those living with diabetes — both Type 1 and Type 2 — will experience some form of retinopathy, a condition that often goes undiagnosed in its early stages when tiny blood vessels in the retina first begin to swell.
As it progresses, the vessels hemorrhage, creating a cloudy haze or spotted filter through which the person views the world. Various laser surgeries can correct part of the vision loss or slow its progression, but, for many, legal blindness is the end result.
The progression can be quick. Bernson continued to work in the licensing department at Paramount Pictures while undergoing a six-month period of assorted surgeries to try to correct the faltering vision in her right eye. Then, in a matter of seconds, her left eye began to take a similar path. Another series of surgeries followed.
“It was a roller coaster,” she said. “ ‘Am I going to be totally blind? Wait, I can see a little bit. No, I lost it …’ ”
After seven years, Bernson was left with no vision in one eye and a hazy, pinhole’s worth of vision in the other. Married at the time, she initially settled into her blindness somewhat privately.
“I hadn’t accepted the blindness to the point of wanting to use the white cane, because then you can’t fake it anymore,” Bernson said. “I mean, you can fake it pretty well if you want to … nonchalantly hold your friend and it doesn’t look that different — until you get to the restaurant and fork an empty bite into your mouth. That’s when people catch on.”
A college-educated former tennis player with a deep-seated independent streak, Bernson soon realized she needed more out of life. She began researching guide dogs and learned that a requirement was the ability to travel independently with a cane.
“For me, the cane was a means to an end,” Bernson said. “My last test of learning the cane was when my mobility and orientation instructor took me to an unfamiliar area, told me where the grocery store was, gave me a list of things she wanted and said, ‘I will meet you outside once you have the things I need.’ It was scary, but I did it.”
Not long after that, Bernson was accepted to GDA as a student and received Nigel, a golden retriever.
“I had to learn how to trust a dog,” Bernson recalled. “It was emotional. It was difficult. It was exhilarating. It was scary. But it was freedom — freedom to regain my independence. I needed that.”
That transformation is what motivates GDA’s six licensed trainers, who work with up to 60 blind students each year, split among six month-long training classes. The organization, which is funded entirely by private donations and sponsorships, provides the dogs free of charge.
“A lot of blind people, particularly if they’ve recently become blind, come to the school pretty fearful and hesitant, but after the four weeks of training, they’re standing tall and proud,” said Chuck Jordan, director of training programs. “That’s what makes the job worth it — watching them grow and begin to have faith in themselves again.”
Having a guide dog offers more than safety and independence. Bernson said it enables her to relax and “listen to pretty things” instead of always keeping an ear open for danger. Plus, a dog is the perfect ice-breaker.
“When you’re standing on the corner with a cane, nobody is going to talk to you,” Bernson said. “There’s no opportunity for eye contact, and people are afraid. They don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything. The minute I got a dog, we knew no strangers.”
Her experience has made her passionate about educating the public about the role of guide dogs. She even caught the attention of Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, who met Bernson and Nigel in 2009 while on a tour of the GDA campus. Colletti was so impressed with the organization, he agreed to fully sponsor not only Bernson’s next guide dog, Carter, a Labrador-golden retriever cross, but he and the Dodgers now sponsor two additional dog-and-handler teams at $42,000 each. And in August 2011, Bernson, with Carter faithfully at her side, threw out the first pitch when the Dodgers played against the San Diego Padres.
Some people may find it odd, but Bernson says she’s happier now than when she was sighted.
“If you can go through a trauma or tragedy and come out the other side and be OK, you’ve accomplished a lot,” Bernson said. “Knowing how I feel about myself now — that I did it — I didn’t let the blindness win; I’m beating it … that makes me happy. And it’s not about the little things anymore. I think any kind of significant loss puts things in perspective, and it’s a perspective that, when you really ‘get it,’ I think you’re happier.”
Getting Nigel, who retired from guide service in 2009 (and is enjoying his old age in the home of his original puppy raisers), and then her current dog, Carter, has had a tremendous impact on her overall attitude and positive outlook.
“I sometimes think about where I’d be if I hadn’t received a guide dog. Nowhere near where I am today, in a hugely negative way,” Bernson said. “I don’t think I would’ve risen above [that] to the point that I did.”
Pausing to stroke Carter’s soft, cream-colored coat, she added, “People often ask, ‘Has he ever saved your life?’ and I know they’re looking for that unbelievable story where the scary thing was falling from the sky and he moved me away.”
But Bernson knows that’s not the point. Has having a guide dog ever saved her life? Every day