People of Ryerson: Michelle Woolfrey

COVER PHOTO:©Michelle Woolfrey

Walking through a crowded Union Station, Michelle Woolfrey weaves in and out of the hurried businessmen rushing through the station. As she reaches a set of crowded stairs, Thomson, her guide dog, waits at the top for the congestion to diffuse. Once an opening appears, he begins walking down, Woolfrey confidently following.

“Union Station is insane… when I had a cane, I was never able to do it by myself.”

Sitting at her desk finishing an assignment at the Tri-Mentoring Program office where she works, it’s hard to imagine Woolfrey as anything but self-sufficient.
This wasn’t always the case though. “After losing [my vision] I was heartbroken. I honestly thought that was the end for me, that all of the dreams I had about being independent and living on my own were gone, because I… couldn’t confidently do it myself.”

Woolfrey is allergic to dogs, which means that when she lost her vision, she couldn’t participate in the national dog-guide program, which uses predominantly black labradors and golden retrievers, two notoriously allergy-inducing breeds. Fortunately for her, in early 2011, just months after losing her vision, Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, the national charitable organization responsible for training guide dogs, began its first hypoallergenic poodle-training program. Woolfrey was quickly approved. “When I found out that Thomson was an option, it opened up that door again, to be able to live independently and do things that I dreamed about for… my future.”

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© Michelle Woolfrey

Thomson wasn’t always there. Before losing her vision, Woolfrey had a routine childhood, growing up in Barrie, Ont., in an affluent household. “I went to school, got good grades, played in the dirt – things that typical little kids do… I used to spend hours just lifting rocks up and finding all the bugs.” At the age of 16, however, things changed. “I was in class and I’d notice little things… I wouldn’t be able to read the chalkboard completely, words would look fuzzy.” After her sight became worse, she was transferred to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, where doctors were initially unable to determine what was wrong with her eyesight. By 2010, at the age of 20, Woolfrey had lost her vision completely. Shortly after, doctors determined the cause of her blindness – a condition that crushed the optical nerve centre of her brain. Although Woolfrey’s eyes work fine, her brain is unable to interpret the images they see.

On her way to lunch, Woolfrey passes by some teenagers – one makes kissing
noises at Thomson. “Please don’t distract her,” she says, explaining why it’s
inappropriate. “He’s doing a job, and the thing is, if you are making kissy noises… and he [gets distracted] then he is not going to be able to do that job.” Though it happens frequently, Woolfrey understands peoples’ curiosity. “They often say they see the dogs walking around in the little green vests as puppies, but… never know what happens to them after. If this helps them understand, then that’s definitely a good thing.”

As she walks into Marble Slab Creamery, a worker notices Woolfrey and Thomson momentarily, then goes back to cleaning. “We’re regulars here,” Woolfrey explains. Though most storeowners are respectful, sometimes she has to assert herself. “I was in this kitchen store and a worker told me it was policy to not allow pets of any kind. I explained that he’s a service dog and there are … actually fines up to $5000 for a business if they refuse us access. Usually, if you explain to people who he is, what he does and why I use him, people are like… ‘no problem, come on in.’”

When they get back from lunch, Woolfrey gives Thomson a hug and some words of praise. “It’s a huge trust relationship… that when you come to a corner of a busy street they’re going to stop, because you aren’t going to see that the traffic is there.” Woolfrey recalls an incident last week. “We were at Yonge-Dundas Square, and it was super busy. The alarm came on, telling you that it’s all clear to cross. So, I… give him a command to go ahead, and he sits down. And I tell him again ‘go,’ and I’m pushing him, but he wouldn’t… budge. [Then] someone came up to me and tapped me on the arm… and said ‘there’s an ambulance that’s trying to get through the intersection that doesn’t have its sirens on, but has its lights flashing… he is keeping you on the sidewalk so you don’t get hit by [it].’”

As she sits in class listening to her professor, Woolfrey types notes onto her laptop. Thomson rests at her side, lifting his head up only when she looks in his direction or reaches into her bag to get something. “I’m constantly blown away by how good he is in a lecture hall, because even I get bored and restless, but he’s just golden.” Woolfrey is in her first year of arts and contemporary studies at Ryerson University. She is able to take notes and do readings using a program called VoiceOver, that comes with all new Macintosh computers and turns screen text into audio.

Sitting in the Tri-Mentoring Office, Woolfrey discusses future plans. She hopes to study international advocacy law, to help others that face the same challenges she did. “I had a tough time with accommodation and acceptance in school after I lost my vision. If I can help pave that road for… [future] students… then I would like to do that.” Although she admits it’s been tough, she says that it hasn’t been all bad. “Some great things… have come out of this – one of them is [Thomson]. He’s my best friend… we graduated high school together, we’ll probably graduate university together. He’s like a piece of me.”

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© Michelle Woolfrey

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