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Dec. Shopping Tough for the Blind

December 13, 1999

MORRISTOWN, N.J. (AP) _ Crowded stores, long lines and short tempers _ it’s another hectic holiday season.

But if getting from one packed department store to the next isn’t already a challenge, shoppers who need an extra set of eyes to help them navigate face an even tougher situation.

``Malls are the hardest to get around in, especially this time of year because the aisles jut out,″ said Christina Brino, 37, who has been blind since birth.

``Some malls also have bus shelters right in the middle of the parking lot, so the bus drops me off far from the entrance. And Regal doesn’t like escalators, so we have to take the elevator,″ she said.

Regal is a 4-year-old, 50-pound golden retriever and Labrador retriever mix. She’s been Brino’s constant companion as a seeing-eye dog since March 1997.

Brino, who heads Morris County’s Office for the Disabled, left her one-bedroom Morristown apartment on a recent Sunday with Regal, holding the dog’s harness with the slightest grip.

Regal trotted slightly in front of Brino, a fast walker herself, on their holiday shopping excursion to the quaint shops that line Madison Avenue in Morristown.

``All people are less patient with you when you’re shopping during the holidays,″ said Brino as she headed towards the Epsteins department store several blocks from her home. ``That’s why I go to places where people know me because they take very good care of me. And I prefer going out with others so I don’t have to keep asking where things are.″

Prodded with words of encouragement, Regal led her master to the front doors of the crowded department store where Brino ran her hands over the doors to find the handle. It was now up to Brino to find the counter that sold gift certificates _ no small task considering the hordes of people standing around glass counters and sales assistants scurrying about with potential customers.

However, Brino did have the advantage of walking through the store many times before, and found her way to the elevator with little trouble. A clerk soon recognized her and guided her in the right direction.

``We’re very conscious of having displays since people like Christina have come through here to learn how to get around in a store,″ said Betsy Fetz, a store manager at Epsteins. ``The aisles are wide and maneuverable.″

The blind and their newly-acquired dogs from The Seeing Eye, the nation’s oldest institution to train seeing-eye dogs, often comes to Epsteins to learn how to maneuver inside a store.

The Seeing Eye, based in Morristown, was founded in 1929. Since then, the school has matched over 12,000 trained dogs with blind people across the U.S. and Canada, school spokeswoman Melissa Campbell said.

Regal was trained at The Seeing Eye for four months, then another month of training with Brino, instructor John Keane said.

``Crowds in stores and display racks are always a challenge for a dog, and so are people coming out of elevators not expecting to see a dog,″ said Keane.

``We will help lobby if there is a major safety concern with stores and their displays,″ said Keane. ``But eventually, the dog will learn on its own the movements of the student, even to learn when the student will start to stumble. It’s really amazing because we don’t teach them that. It’s instinct.″

Courtney Gross, of Staten Island, N.Y., has just begun relying on the help of a seeing-eye dog.

Gross, 18, began losing her vision at age 5, and was blind by the time she was 10. The freshman honors student at the College of Staten Island was trained with her seeing-eye dog over the summer.

She recently went to the Staten Island Mall for some serious holiday shopping. ``It went well, but it’s hard in a mall situation now because people want to pet him,″ said Gross of Xavior, her 2-year-old golden retriever.

``I’m not cool with people talking to him, either. Adults should realize these dogs have a purpose. He’s only been with me for five months, but he’s a piece of me. When someone touches him, it’s like they’re touching me. I tell them, ’Please don’t pet him, because he’s working right now.‴

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