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June 19, 2021

6/11/2021 10:34:00 AM
Guide dog as added "Bonus" in Fallon Zimmerman's life
"I am more confident in myself and my decisions since I have been a team with my guide dog," local woman Fallon Zimmerman says. "I can walk comfortably knowing he has extensive training to do his job."
Zimmerman has had vision issues from the time she was eight months old, during which time her mother noticed she was frequently squinting her eyes. She went to an eye specialist at Davis Duehr Dean in Madison, Wisconsin. By 10 months old she began wearing glasses and going to eye appointments every four to six months.
By the time she was three years old, she was officially diagnosed with Achromatopsia. According to the Fighting Blindness website, Achromatopsia is a rare (1:30,000) inherited retinal degeneration. It is commonly known as either a partial or complete absence of color vision.
"My vision is "stable" yet changes due to the light setting," Zimmerman said. "I am extremely light sensitive to the point where I can become completely blind. I feel most comfortable at dawn, dusk, and whenever it is dark outside. Rainy days are easy on the eyes as well. I am legally blind always; it is just a matter of how blind I am with different light settings. I am completely colorblind as well being born without the cones in my eyes."
Growing up, Zimmerman often felt she had to work hard to adapt to any situation. She had to depend on her mother for transportation and safe travels when growing up. In grade school she was taught how to use a white cane, for the visually impaired.
"I did not use my cane much due to the environment around me with people, and my school being surrounded by cornfields," Zimmerman said. "I also was taught how to read Braille, just in case my vision got worse, and I needed a backup plan."
Feedback from people wasn't always the greatest, as Zimmerman found that people became quite confused when trying to understand her situation.
"I was bullied in school for my visual impairment up until I graduated," Zimmerman said. When the bullying became too much, I decided to transfer to the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Janesville, Wisconsin for my junior year."
It was at the school in Janesville where she finally felt accepted, and a sense that there was nothing wrong with who she was; she was finally surrounded by a community of support and understanding.
She transferred back to Iowa-Grant High School for her senior year, in order to meet high school graduation requirements. The advocacy journey for accommodation continued throughout college, and was met with some success and frustrations.
"I have had to constantly remind teachers, and professors what I needed, what works and what does not work, ' Zimmerman said. "I have had a lot of success with many along the way, but it is frustrating to pine for something that should be remembered and put first to support my success in learning. I am grateful for the teachers and professors who have taken the time to listen and support me with how I need to be supported."
Zimmerman was working as a greeter at the Lands' End Summer Warehouse Sale in Dodgeville, Wisconsin during high school when a guide dog in training ran out of the door she had been stationed at. The guide dog had been a part of OccuPaws, a Madison based non-profit International Guide Dog Federation accredited school that offers training sessions that are conducted in the comfort of the client's home environment.
This means that a blind individual does not have to leave their home, their job and their family to get the training required to safely and effectively use one of the most incredible mobility tools available - a guide dog. When Zimmerman realized the puppy raiser had small town connections, she was given information about Occupaws, she submitted her application along with vision documentation.
After many interviews, she was matched with Bonus, a six year old English yellow Labrador Retriever, while attending school at Edgewood College in Madison. The duo had two weeks of intense training, eight hours daily. They graduated as a guide dog team on September 11, 2016. A year later, Bonus became a permanent member of her family.
The relationship that Zimmerman and Bonus took time, and Zimmerman says Bonus is a hard working professional. Off duty, Bonus is playful and social, but once the harness comes on it's time to go to work.
"I've learned that he loves play time and work equally as much," Zimmerman said. "He is very proud of what he does for me. Our relationship has evolved quite a bit. With time, we have become more in sync. He can anticipate my thoughts with direction, it seems, when we are working. In the early stages of being a guide dog team, there were many things to get used to and for each of us to learn about each other. He is trained to tend to my needs specifically and has adapted to my needs with how unique my visual impairment is."
"I'm not sure how to explain this but also over time, our connection has gotten stronger, more like I don't see him as a dog, but another soul paired with mine, or an extension of myself," Zimmerman added. "I talk to him like I would a human and he responds as if he understands my emotions and exactly what I'm saying."
Zimmerman concluded that she is forever grateful for Occupaws, because without it, she is not sure where she would be.
"When you become a part of Occupaws, you become family," Zimmerman said. "I am amazed at the support Occupaws offers Wisconsin and bordering states. It is comforting to connect with other guide dog users that have similarities with what they experience in life, and of course my guide dog Bonus has enhanced my quality of life in many ways."

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