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After guiding 2,000 blind conventioneers, they'll be dog-tired

Saturday, July 05, 2003

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Orchestrating an eight-day conference for 2,000 blind people can cause a lot of anxiety.

Just ask any of the 450 guide dogs at the American Council of the Blind national convention, which starts Downtown today.

Volunteer Bob Burt, left, of Canonsburg escorts Vita Zavoli of New York City along the platform at the Amtrak station, Downtown, yesterday. Zavoli, a member of the American Foundation for the Blind, is an exhibitor at the American Council of the Blind's convention at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center through the coming week. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

"This is a very stressful environment for dogs to work in," said Penny Reeder of Montgomery Village, Md., her German shepherd Tess at her feet. "There are so many people waving canes around."

That puts the services of professional dog masseuse Carla Campbell in demand at the convention, which will feature a smorgasbord of seminars, exhibits and social events at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and the neighboring Westin Convention Center hotel.

Campbell, who also works on horses, will be booked solid during mornings through the week, as conventioneers seek to reward and rejuvenate their tired canines.

"It really helps the dogs focus," she said. "They absolutely love it."

A former technical writer in the Silicon Valley, Campbell switched careers three years ago, learning her trade at such institutions as EquiTouch in Colorado and Integrated Touch Therapy in Ohio.

She will devote about 15 to 20 minutes to each of her clients at the convention.

"It's basic Swedish massage strokes and some mild myofascial relief," said Campbell, who has a guide dog of her own -- a very relaxed golden retriever.

If the presence of Campbell reveals anything, it's that the conference offers almost everything, drawing conventioneers from as far away as Australia.

"There are a lot of different things to do," said Ron Friess of Perrysburg, Ohio, who has attended several of the American council's conventions. "Some people use this as a vacation and go on all the tours. Usually, I'm up late playing euchre or partying."

Hundreds of volunteers have been recruited locally to help the conventioneers get around.

Volunteer Jim Luteran of Dormont picked up conference-goer Ethel Siegel of Philadelphia at the Amtrak station yesterday.

Siegel became mildly distressed when another volunteer carted her suitcase away, even though Luteran assured her that it would end up at the hotel.

Ethel: "I will blame you if it gets lost."

Jim: "OK, my name is Bill."

The Westin made several modifications to its 600-room hotel to accommodate visually impaired guests.

One is noticeable near the main entrance, where a layer of wood chips serves as a restroom for guide dogs.

Inside the hotel, the staff posted extra large floor numbers outside elevator doors and supersized the font on its event screens, since many of the conventioneers have some eyesight.

Restaurant menus in the hotel are available in Braille.

Because some of the attendees are staying on the other end of Downtown at the Pittsburgh Hilton and Towers, the city installed audible traffic signals at seven intersections on Penn Avenue.

And the city Parks and Recreation Department printed activities guides in Braille and large-print form.

A contingent of conventioneers attended yesterday's Pirates game, although contrary to rumor, none of them are employed as major league umpires.

But once the conference gets into full swing on Monday, some serious business will be conducted.

Among the issues to be discussed is the "Video Description Restoration Act," a bill pending in Congress that could force television networks to offer blind viewers a spoken description of what appears on the screen.

The convention program lists dozens of events and offerings each day.

So much will be happening that, before it's over, some of the conventioneers might be in need of a massage themselves.


Jeffrey Cohan can be reached at jcohan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3573.