February 1, 2016
A Vision Of Love
A rare, degenerative eye condition has left Shayne Fraser legally blind, but you don’t need to look far to witness the love between he and his wife, Nerida, or the special bond between Shayne and William – a guide dog who is man’s best friend and proof love can be a four-legged word.
I’d like you to imagine walking from home to your favourite coffee shop – the one that’s an easy stroll away and pours your favourite blend. Now, close your eyes and imagine the same route, with just your sense of sound to navigate through a cacophony of darting animals, speeding cars and busy construction sites.
In Australia, 90,000 people are blind, and up to 25,000 more will become blind in the next five years, according to Guide Dogs Queensland.
Through Guide Dogs Queensland, seven-year-old William has become Shayne’s eyes, and looking at the Labrador poised loyally at Shayne’s feet, and owning Labradors myself, I know the incredible love they share – but I can only imagine the amplification of your treasured family member acting as one of your biggest senses, too.
Shayne smiles, “He’s so important to me because he provides me with freedom, speed, independence and reassurance to go places.”
“Getting William meant that Shayne could go for a walk or go for coffee with a friend without having to fit it into my schedule,” smiles Nerida.
“I still recall, I felt like William made Shayne safer. To be honest I cannot imagine life without him now.”
Shayne has retinal cone dystrophy, a rare degenerative eye condition that has robbed him of his sight over 20 years, shadows seeping into an otherwise sunny marriage between the couple who met in Rockhampton when Nerida was 16 and Shayne was 19; relocating to the Sunshine Coast in 1998.
They will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in March, and are proud parents of Carla, Kelly and Mel, and grandparents to “two beautiful grandkids”, Chelsey, four and Connor, two.
“Nearly to the day I turned 30 it started,” says Shayne of losing his eyesight when he was a surveyor, explaining the first indication was seeing flashes of white out of the corner of his eyes, before six months and six specialists later revealed Shayne’s central vision to his brain, the cones that provide colour, depth perception, focus and light regulation, were dying off.
“Most of my eyesight comes from peripheral vision, I can’t see colour – mainly black, whites, dark and lights,” says Shayne, whose vision is now a thick white fog outdoors, while indoors he can see outlines.
“I started helping with driving, then reading fine print, now it’s paperwork and managing finances. But Shayne is extremely independent, he cooks, he cleans, he even mows the lawn,” Nerida says.
With the couple holding a strong Christian faith, Shayne worked at a Sunshine Coast primary school as chaplain, joined by Nerida, before she moved on to study teaching. As a matter of fact, I was a student at the school, so it’s quite special to be interviewing Shayne and Nerida almost 12 years on.
Towards the end of his 11-year chaplaincy tenure, Shayne applied for and received William, a decision motivated by his dislike for the white cane he’d previously used.
“I put the cane away, because it’s just an identification you have a problem, but I nearly walked over a little kid one day so I started using it again, but I couldn’t walk fast.”
William joined the Fraser family in October 2010, he and Shayne were expertly matched through Guide Dogs Queensland; the two spent three weeks together training at Bald Hills.
William was quickly embraced by the family, with Nerida sharing that, “as much as he’s very much Shayne’s dog and he’s happiest when he’s with Shayne, he’s part of our family and comes wherever we go.”
Now lying at my feet, William looks over at the sound of Shayne’s voice as he talks – the two have a very strong bond.
“He has a great memory. I can tell him to find a seat on a bus or at a coffee shop, we go on escalators, get into lifts, I can say, find a door, opening or gate and he’ll recognise the word. He goes on buses, trains. He knows right and left, he stops at the curb. If there’s a car coming, a low tree, or a danger, he will stop,” Shayne says.
Shayne and William stay on track with continual support offered by Guide Dogs Queensland, without the organisation they would have been unable to afford William.
I don’t think people appreciate the partner of a person with a disability, how much extra they do.”
“If people can seriously think about puppy raising, Guide Dogs provide all the vet care, the food, training – it just costs time,” he says.
Nerida starts to tear up, admitting her gratitude for the volunteers.
“At Chancellor Park shopping centre there were people collecting money for Guide Dogs and one Christmas I gave them a box of chocolates and said thank you, because every little thing that every volunteer does makes a huge difference and I want people to know how grateful we are.
“People say, oh look at the cute dog but they don’t know the reality of it.”
The reality is tough; picking up the kids, teaching them to drive, helping with study – that’s all Nerida, and Shayne points out just how much her support means, as she juggles work teaching at and directing an early learning centre, while Shayne now works out of home as a massage therapist.
“She’s an amazing lady, my wife,” he says. “I don’t think people appreciate the partner of a person with a disability, how much extra they do.”
Shayne also shares the often overlooked obstacles of having a guide dog, such as people letting their dogs run up to William.
“When we walk, William’s my eyesight, if he’s distracted I could easily fall over or hurt myself,” Shayne says.
“And, I get comments on what a good looking dog he is, you become a bit of public property,” he says, “but if I tell people about William they might be keen to put money in the fundraising dog heads.”
The Frasers have now had William for five years. Soon, they will talk about retiring him, as guide dogs work until they are about 10 years old due to the mental strain and concentration their role requires; owners can either keep their dog along with a new guide dog, or hand them back to Guide Dogs Queensland to be safely retired.
“William’s part of the family, it’s going to be drawing straws as to which daughter gets to take him as he won’t be leaving the family,” smiles Nerida.
As we finish the interview, Shayne demonstrates William in his harness. The playful Labrador is gone, replaced by serious brown eyes and a quiet stillness as he’s strapped in. But, once that harness is off, William is a blur of white fur as he laps the living room and seeks out his favourite rubber chicken toy, to the sound of Shayne and Nerida’s laughter.
If you’d like to find out more about the incredible work of Guide Dogs Queensland, visit www.guidedogsqld.com.au