by Mallorie Ann Ingram

To say life has its ups and downs would be an understatement for most people, especially those coping with disabilities. Jennifer Cleveland, board member at the Center for the Visually Impaired, has made it a point to help spread the news of hope, making an impact to help others beat their potential. 

Before Cleveland became visually impaired, her professional career consisted of personal training for approximately 10 years. She was also a paramedic in the trauma center at Holmes Regional Medical Center. In 2009, she became legally blind from an autoimmune disease that caused the majority of her sight to be lost. 

“In good lighting, if you put your sunglasses on and smear Vaseline across your eyes, that’s what my vision is like,” Cleveland says. 

Her life started to fall apart. She lost her job because of the inability to drive and perform duties, her marriage crumbled, and the majority of friends abandoned her, all of which, she explained, is common among those who develop disabilities. 

“I finally found out about the Center for the Visually Impaired and the Brevard Association for the Advancement of the Blind and I signed up for training with them,” Cleveland says. 

“That’s when everything changed for me,” she recalls. “I started meeting others that were visually impaired and I figured out that everything happening to me was normal and was happening to others, too.” 

After continuing training with the Center for the Visually Impaired, something incredible happened. She began regaining the spark and drive for life and welcomed it back into the picture. 

“I learned that I wanted to have a fulfilling life and be part of the community, and even go back to work,” Cleveland says. “I didn’t know what work looked like, though.” She then was led to become a yoga teacher. Doubtful at first, she realized this was a new adventure. From that point on she began thriving again, but something was missing from her active lifestyle. Thanks to her best friend’s involvement with the Guide Dog Foundation, she was convinced this was the route to take. “How is it that my best friend gets involved with Guide Dog Foundation and I become visually impaired?” Cleveland ponders. “It was divine order.” After a lengthy application process determining the perfect fit for Cleveland’s lifestyle, she was advised it could take up to two years to receive a guide dog. This prompted her to consider Pilot Dog, another organization available. After a couple of weeks, she received the call that a dog was waiting for her. “When you arrive to get your dog, you have to live there for three days before seeing your dog because the organization tests and trains you to be sure you’re capable of handling a guide dog,” Cleveland says. “On the third day, they bring the dog to you and leave you there together, alone.” Cleveland didn’t know what to expect. They presented her to Frank and it was time for their first walk together, a truly memorable experience. “It’s something you just can’t imagine or prepare for,” Cleveland explains. “For one thing, you have to just give yourself and your trust to the dog.” After a month of extensive training, Cleveland was able to learn routines and paths to take and effective commands, all the while waiting to see if Frank was the perfect match. At times, it was difficult to think of the dog as a mobility device when really, she always loved dogs. “I knew the bond was complete and he was the perfect match when the vet came in for his rabies shot and, for whatever reason, the dog started screaming, and I just lost it,” Cleveland says. “That’s when I realized the bond was complete.” When Cleveland returned home, things began to feel more normal and she realized she was beginning a new stage in life. One of the first things she did was introduce Frank to the beach. “When we topped the boardwalk, I could feel his energy change,” Cleveland says. “Today he still loves the beach.” At home, Frank gets to be off duty, where people can pet him or talk to him. Immediately, Cleveland got back into the swing of life with her yoga class, bringing Frank along. “One of the rules is that you’re not allowed to get on the floor with the dog because you have to remain the dominant one,” Cleveland says. “This was difficult to train him because the second I sat on the floor he was all excited.” Eventually, after a few days of training, Frank learned the importance of staying still in Cleveland’s class. Now, he just goes to sleep. Cleveland has gone through other challenges along the way, some of which become discouraging at times. 

“There’s a lack of understanding from the public toward visually impaired individuals,” Cleveland says. “People think you have to have a stereotypical look and (they) interfere by asking personal questions to confirm if you’re blind.” 

This has been extremely difficult for Cleveland, especially when she is out in the community with Frank. Individuals will approach her and try to pet or distract Frank, even with his guide dog harness on. Some have argued that the harness doesn’t display the words ‘do not pet,’ which has perplexed Cleveland. 

“The harness is the sign and indicator to not pet the dog; it’s a uniform,” Cleveland says. “You don’t walk up to a police officer and start petting him.” 

Nevertheless, Cleveland decided to put a sign on him stating ‘do not pet,’ but people still try to talk to Frank, or worse, let their own dogs approach him, which makes it difficult at times. Cleveland says others don’t respect the fact that this is a visually impaired person’s way of mobility. 

“It’s a lot of the reason why disabled people don’t go out because they have to explain their medical situation,” Cleveland says. “It’s exhausting sometimes.” All challenges and difficulties put aside, Cleveland has persevered. It’s her ongoing effort to encourage others with similar challenges to never give up and realize it’s possible to live a joyful life. Along with being a yoga teacher at the Henegar Center, Cleveland is a Thai Yoga Massage practitioner for women, a member of the Board of Directors for the Center for the Visually Impaired, engages in public speaking events and fundraising efforts to support others, Chair for Dining in the Dark, and involved in White Cane Awareness Day. “We all have different gifts and blessings,” Cleveland says. “It’s about finding what works for you and what you can bring to the world. This takes a village and support from the community.” ◆ 

Adventures in the Life of the Visually Impaired

I went into a restroom that I was unfamiliar with and gave Frank the command to “Find in.” After working together for six years now, he knows that means to find the handicap stall. He found it and started guiding me there. Then, over my left shoulder, I suddenly saw another large black dog. I immediately went into panic mode, I can’t trust the average person with their dog. They don’t know to respect Frank’s space as a guide dog, or listen when I ask them to keep their dog back. Within about two seconds I’d had this entire conversation in my head, “Oh my God, there’s someone with a big dog in here. But Frank is still completely calm, he’s not showing any signs of stress, not even noticing the dog. He is still guiding me easily.” From what I can tell, the woman has the dog completely under control, and Frank isn’t worried at all. I know he can tell the dog is here because they’re very close to each other and it’s a big dog. I think, “Good job Frank, thank God we’re finally encountering someone who knows how to keep control of their dog. I’ll just continue forward towards the stall.” 

Wait a minute! They’re moving along with us, what’s going on here? 

The restroom has a floor to ceiling mirror.