For Jose and Fabian Quintanilla, it’s been a lifelong journey through a world of darkness as retinitis pigmentosa stole their vision to the point where the brothers, ages 29 and 24, are now blind.
Now the brothers have become the first siblings to graduate from Southeastern Guide Dogs in the same class — and with guide dogs they hope will bring them a new level of independence.
Retinitis pigmentosa is hereditary and, while it may not affect some people, the gene is carried by a parent and can be passed on to their children. The brothers were born with vision, but every year the disease stole more and more of their sight. The two brothers both attended the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in their hometown of St. Augustine.
“Some parts of it were good as far as learning mobility and how to touch type, but sometimes I didn’t want to be there,” Fabian said. “You’re in a box. Everyone is just like you and you’re not really in touch with the outside world as much as you’d like to be.”
“I thought it would be a lot easier,” he said. “I came here and thought the dog would take me right to the curb, and I didn’t think learning how to harness him would be as hard as it was. The first time I tried to harness Tyler, it took me like 20 minutes.
“But it was interesting, and we really started to bond after the third day,” Fabian added. “We just started clicking, and I trust him.”
Fabian graduated from college earlier this month and wants to return to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind to teach history.
Working in tandem
Big brother Jose was paired with a black Labrador named “Gibbson.” The two dogs get along with each other as well as the two brothers, and in the final days before graduation began learning how to work in tandem with brothers and dogs side by side.
While attending school in St. Augustine, Jose took classes toward a career in food service and culinary arts. He currently operates a vendor service for Florida’s rest-stop vending machines.
Jose’s bond with Gibbson was immediate.
“It took us like 20 minutes to get to know each other and after that first 20 minutes, we were good to go,” Jose said. “Gibbson is real mellow and laid back, a lot like me. Sometimes I have to tell him to slow down and sometimes I feel like I’m slowing him down. He knows what to do, and now I’m catching up.”
Gibbson is Jose’s first guide dog, but Jose is Gibbson’s second handler. His first handler became ill and had to return Gibbson, who is ahead of the curve among his guide dog classmates. It’s been a perfect match, and there “is an art and science to the matching,” said Ruth Lando, Southeastern’s media relations manager.
Though he wasn’t sure at first, Fabian now says the same for Tyler.
“Tyler is so patient with me, and that’s one quality I’ve really like about him,” he said. “For me, I’ve always felt like everybody is watching me at every moment. But last week we went out on our own. For the first in a very long time, I didn’t feel like everyone was staring at me the way I felt with a cane. I’m just more focused on what Tyler is doing, rather than walking around on my own.”
Lando said it’s been a great opportunity for Southeastern to make this kind of impact for an entire family.
“The dynamics of their family is being transformed, and they will become more independent — and hopefully their family will, too,” she said.
That’s an important component for the brothers.
“This was kind of emotional for our mom,” Jose said. “Dad is a little more easy-going, but Mom worries about us all the time. Mom has been the sighted guide until now. Once she sees us working and sees how the dogs are with us, we are hoping she’ll be able to take it easy. We are hoping to take this one thing off of them, because they’ve done so much for us.”
The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind (FSDB) is a fully accredited state public school and outreach center available tuition-free to eligible Pre-K and K-12 deaf/hard of hearing and blind/visually impaired students. Comprehensive educational services at FSDB are individualized, specific to the unique communication and accessibility needs of each student for independence and lifelong success. FSDB gratefully accepts private donations to support vital programs that directly benefit students and are not paid by state general revenue funds. To visit the school or to learn more about eligibility for enrollment, contact 1-800-344-3732. For more information, visit www.fsdb.k12.fl.us.