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Navigating Through Life as a Team

San Francisco BART board candidate and community advocate Jonathan Lyens has spent much of his career working to ensure disabled citizens have the access to housing and transportation to help them overcome obstacles that might prevent them from leading a full and happy life.

As someone who has been blind since childhood, Lyens, who works as a senior contract analyst for the San Francisco Department of Health, has overcome tremendous obstacles and faced down tough fights his entire life. Growing up in North Carolina, he was the only visually impaired student at his school, a status he claims laid the groundwork to first advocate for himself and then for others.

His advocacy work resulted in Gov. Jerry Brown appointing him twice to the local board of the State Council on Developmental Disabilities and to his starting the FDR Democratic Club of San Francisco, which advocates for seniors and people with disabilities. He is now running for the BART Board District 8.

But he hasn’t made it this far alone. Lyens has found an ideal working partner to help him keep up the busy pace of his life in San Francisco — his guide dog, Benito. Both Lyens and Benito are graduates of Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael. GDB prepares highly qualified guide dogs to serve and empower individuals who are blind or have low vision. All of its services are provided free.

An average day for Lyens begins with him boarding Muni with Benito from his Richmond District home where he lives with his wife. Benito has helped him not only master his daily bus commute, but also the obstacle-laden pedestrian course along San Francisco’s sidewalks and streets surrounding his office across from City Hall.

“Anyone who has tried to navigate San Francisco’s sidewalks recently knows that there all sorts of things that can impede your path, and these things can change on a daily basis,” said Lyens. “Having Benito dramatically improves my efficiency and confidence with this, because a guide dog maneuvers you around obstacles, as opposed to using a cane, which only alerts you to them.”

Another major commute obstacle that traveling with Benito has helped Lyens navigate is the perpetual construction zone that is San Francisco. Lyens reports that Benito alerts him constantly to daily — and sometimes hourly — changes in construction.

Benito often campaigns with Lyens at various places around town, which puts them in contact with sighted folks of all walks of life and ages. He says that people are mostly great, but he does need to remind many adults (children are more thoughtful, he says) to ask him if they can pet Benito while he’s working.

Sighted people unfamiliar with the working aspect of guide dogs often mistakenly think that guide dogs either intuitively or magically know where they’re going. But it takes extensive training from Guide Dogs of the Blind, as well as training of their human partners.

Lyens is quick to point out that he and Benito are very much a working team, and that they behave like a captain and a pilot together.

“Working with a guide dog is magical, but the process of guidework is definitely not magic,” he said. “Guide dogs and their human partners have to work together every step of every journey, and it requires an enormous amount of communication. I give Guide Dogs for the Blind a lot of credit for pairing the right teams together.”

Lyens also thinks that an important aspect that people don’t understand about successful working guide dogs is that these dog really want to be guide dogs. He believes it goes beyond the “intelligent disobedience” it takes for a guide to make life-saving decisions and that guide dogs love doing the work they were destined to do.

“The rapport and relationship between Benito and me has a lot to do with our success, “ he said. “We both have to trust each other, and the process.”

Lyens adds that Benito has also made air travel infinitely more efficient and less stressful for him. They recently returned from a five-day trip to Chicago together.

But it’s not all work for the pair; when the harness comes off, Benito is ready for play. When they returned home from Chicago, Benito gave Lyens the sign that he wanted to do their favorite activity — snuggle.

“He gave me the sign, and I laughed and asked him if he was sure he wasn’t tired of me after our long trip together,” he said. “He also has a toy box at home that would put most toddlers to shame.”

For more information about GDB, visit GuideDogs.com.

Karen Woon is vice president of marketing for Guide Dogs for the Blind (GuideDogs.com). She was director of marketing for Prophet Brand Strategy and held key positions with McCann-Erickson. She holds an MBA in marketing from the Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley. Her interests include architecture and design, stand up paddleboarding, tropical islands, and watching her kids compete in soccer and karate.

 

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Main article photo by: Photo by Spencer Aldworth Brown