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 Article of Interest - Visually Impaired (VI)

Guests' guests get perks at hotel

Marriott welcomes Seeing Eye dogs along with their masters

By Jon Anderson, Tribune staff reporter, August 27, 2002

For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit


Call it a woof deck.


When 600 conventioneers checked into the Chicago Marriott Downtown last weekend for national convention of The Foundation Fighting Blindness, they brought along an added challenge for the hotel--Seeing Eye dogs.


The Marriott, in turn, put in a fenced-off turf and cement dog-walk area on its 9th-floor patio, high above North Michigan Avenue, with a splendid view of the surrounding skyscrapers.


"We tried to make it seem like a park," said the hotel's general manager John W. Adams, taking a visitor on a tour of a space that also included wood benches, water bowls, a fountain and a number of rocks to sniff.

The hotel, Adams explained, does not usually welcome dogs.


On the other hand, it is company policy to figure out how to be helpful to conventioneers.


For the foundation's convention, "VISIONS 2002 Chicago: Seeing the Light," that meant training the staff to understand the needs of visitors who spent three days covering such topics as living skills, genetic breakthroughs, assistive technology and the possibilities of implantable microelectrode chips to restore lost vision.


As Brian Boucher, the hotel's senior event manager, explained, staff members were urged to wait to be asked before offering assistance. Housekeepers were told not to move objects in rooms during daily cleanups.


Guest keys were notched so sight-impaired guests would know which side of a plastic room key to insert into a lock. Guest rooms were supplied with vibrating alarm clocks, to be placed under pillows.


Along with menus in Braille, the dining room was set with dark linens, to make the white cutlery easier to see. In the main lobby, bright orange tape was put down on the edges of stairs leading in from Michigan Avenue.


And room service menus carried an added entry for the three days: dog food--and biscuits.


"At other conferences I've been to across the country, they don't have grass. You have to go outside on pavement or, in New York, in between parked cars. This is much better," said Bannister, who spoke at a Saturday session on behalf of CareerConnect, an online employment resource operated by the American Foundation for the Blind.


Much of the work at the convention was aimed at getting people with vision or hearing problems out of what foundation staffers called "the what-am-I-going-to-do? phase" and into creative coping.


"There's a stereotype of blindness, which I once held myself, that it disables you in more ways than it, in fact, does," Gordon Gund, a real estate mogul and co-owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, recently noted in an interview in Harvard Magazine, his alumni journal.


Gund, who became blind in 1970 from retinitis pigmentosa, a genetically inherited eye disease, founded The Foundation Fighting Blindness in 1971.


In three decades, the foundation has raised $160 million to find causes, treatments, preventions and cures for a range of retinal degenerative diseases which, in some way, affect the lives of 15 million Americans.


"Personally, I realized I needed to make some changes 10 years ago," noted one speaker, Becky Andrews, now a counselor with the patient support program of the Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah.


That happened, she said, when she walked into a stop sign--and got a concussion.


Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, she learned to use a cane "before I had to" and to "protect my head with my arm when walking." She urged her audience to "tell people what you have. It releases the stress of keeping a secret."


Attitude helps.


"Be assertive, but with a sense of humor," Andrews advised, "and always leave your keys in the same place."


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