In the long journey of life that we face at our birth, we encounter obstacles day after day that make our lives more difficult. However, the obstacles are not the same for all people, we face various social, economic, psychological problems, etc. To these usual problems of society we must add those experienced by people who face physical disabilities, which make the problems mentioned above, are of little relevance … This is the case of Roberto, a visually impaired man -total blind- born in Burgos (Spain) 45 years ago.
According to World Health Organization data from 2014, there are 39 million people in the world with blindness, of which an estimated 80% could have been prevented. In Spain there are a total number of 979,200 people with some kind of visual disability, of which some 70,000 are blind.
Roberto enjoyed a normal life, he got married, went to live in Madrid, had a son – who is now 11 years old -, he drove, he had a job… but in 2008 suddenly some little clouds began to appear in his eyes. What seemed to be an anecdote became normal to the point of almost having a serious traffic accident because of those visual problems, “one day I was driving on the M-40 and it began to appear as a fog in my eyes and I had to stop at the side of the road” says Roberto. It was then that he decided to go to the doctor and that diagnosis caused a life change. It was glaucoma, a degenerative disease that gradually diminished until he saw nothing “I kept a little light but it was as if I saw an exaggeratedly thick and closed fog” assures Roberto.
This disease damages the optic nerve of the eye. The drainage system of the eye becomes clogged and the intraocular fluid cannot drain. Glaucoma usually has no accompanying symptoms, and is called the “silent thief of vision”. Roberto also suffers from photophobia -high intolerance to light-.
From the moment of that fatal diagnosis, Roberto was filled with doubts: “I had always studied, I had a job… and suddenly you don’t know what’s going with your life, if you’re going to have a pension, how you’re going to get around in that situation…” he says. However, he was clear about it, the easy option was to stay at home, but Roberto’s willpower came out every time you talked to him and instead of resigning himself he began to be ready for that new life.
As it was a progressive disease, he had a period of time to adapt to what was going to happen to him and he decided to study everything he would need for when he saw absolutely nothing. He learned Braille, although he confesses “not practicing it makes it difficult for me to read fluently”. He also began to pay more attention to what was going on around him by using his ear to guide himself “it’s not that I have a better ear but that I’m much more focused” he says. A sense that used to be complementary has become his main sense, from hearing to listening.
One of the most traumatic moments for him was using the walking stick on the first day.In this uncertain and dark journey, not everything is traumatic; he is accompanied by his faithful friend and worker, Stellar. This 6-year-old guide dog gives light to his life and is his rudder every time he leaves his home.
ONCE (Spanish National Organization for the Blind) has a guide dog school in Boadilla del Monte. There are so many blind people that this organization is not enough to teach so many dogs and during many years it has had an agreement with the “Lions Club”, a humanitarian service organization that emerged in the USA in 1917. Its purpose is to help people locally and globally. This organization paid great attention from its beginnings to blindness and the causes that produce it and that is why in 1939 it created the Guide Dog School in Rochester, Michigan (USA).
Roberto had to cross the ocean to meet the one that today is his best companion, Stellar. This dog of Labrador Retriever breed comes from the School of Michigan (USA) where Roberto received the necessary training for his mobility by means of a guide dog together with other colleagues. The stay there was a bit hard “we went in January and it was very cold, besides snow, the dog was given some booties so that he didn’t burn his legs” he explains.
The procedure to obtain a guide dog is quite long and the first step is to apply for it. After the application they carry out an exhaustive study of the guide dog user, health analysis, psychological examination, of mobility, orientation, handling of the cane… “From the moment you go blind you have to wait a long period of time from the moment you apply for the guide dog until it is granted” says Roberto.
Being a blind person may seem dramatic to us, however Roberto always brings a smile to the situations he faces and sets goals that make him lead a normal and pleasant life.
Roberto’s life is self-sufficient, practically autonomous. Although it is true that his family gives him a hand with the housework, he usually takes care of the cooking most of the week, except for the days he goes to eat with his family.
At ONCE he was given some basic training in cooking, for example he usually wears silicone gloves that he uses to cook some steaks so that he can turn them over without burning himself. Getting the steaks out to the right point is a complicated task for him “sometimes they come out like a shoe sole and I don’t throw many into the pan because otherwise I don’t know which one I’ve turned over” Roberto confesses to me with a huge smile. I’m sure Stellar doesn’t mind, he’d be happy to eat them.
An example of this motivation to excel is that two years ago he decided to start studying law. The process was not easy, at the beginning he had some bad advice and after two years he managed to enroll in the UNED. He enrolled in two law courses and applied for a study plan at ONCE, which was granted. His way of studying is through audio books, an added difficulty, since he had always been used to reading, being allowed to take notes, underlining…
He has always been a curious person and remembers how since he was a child he has always been connected to sport by playing football, basketball, handball… and that hobby has kept him going until today.
Antonio Machado’s famous verses “Caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar…” Roberto has taken them literally and so they have become his discipline and ethic of life and he has fulfilled them… The learning for that new life that he has to live is without a doubt an arduous road but not enough for Roberto, he has added another challenge, to walk every day 26 km next to his great four-legged colleague, Stellar.
Day after day Roberto goes for his morning and evening walk for sure, in 2019 he crossed the 10.000 km and every year he wishes to add some more kilometres. There is no doubt that Burgos is a city to walk around – despite the cold weather – and he takes advantage of those big green areas that are introduced within the city of Burgos, the Espolón, La Quinta and Fuentes Blancas as his final point of the tour.
While I am making this interview, I go with him on many of those walks and Stellar, like a good guide dog, keeps a close eye on me so that I don’t get lost either. We walk through those places where the trees and tranquility surround us and Roberto tells me little stories of his life with a smile and great humor. He remembers the situation he experienced one day on one of his walks when a father and his daughter saw him and the father commented to his daughter, “you don’t see, that man doesn’t see” to which the girl replied “but if he wears glasses”, the innocence of the children caused Roberto to continue his walk with a big smile.
Society in general is unaware of the obstacles that a blind person can face, we don’t place ourselves in their shoes and what for us is common for other people means facing barriers that are difficult to overcome and the obstacles in a city are often numerous. One such barrier in cities is for example public works, places that are not signposted as they should be for blind people. Roberto remembers what happened to him a few months ago when some construction work began in Fuentes Blancas. While he was walking along his usual route a worker warned him that there was an obstacle because of the works they were doing in the Paseo de la Quinta but when Roberto and Stellar came back the dog was in the wrong – Roberto points out that Steller has to be conscientiously shown the routes – and he continued the route on the other hand with the bad fortune that he found another construction site and going down a path of stones he fell to the ground… A hit for Roberto that must echo in the ears of those people who must make a city, a place open to all human beings.
Another work that took place a year ago forced him to go along the right side of the Arlanzón River ( downhill) and when he crossed the road there was not the usual beep at the traffic lights – apart from being a pedestrian crossing with little time to cross – so it was dangerous, since the guide dogs and therefore Steller too, do not know when to cross, it is the owner who has to give the signal to the dog to cross.
The great affluence of people is also a great problem and for Roberto and Stellar it is an odyssey when they walk by the Espolón de Burgos walk in summer or when they go to Madrid to visit their son, since the places with great affluence of people make him much more complicated to cross and Stellar does not go comfortable either, He also admits with a smile “when I go with Stellar it’s as if I were in a ferrari”, and it’s true, the days I go with Roberto and Stellar I go away at certain moments to take some pictures and Stellar when he sees how I go away begins to speed up as if it were a game.
A sport that Roberto admires is basketball and he is a passionate fan of Club Baloncesto Miraflores (San Pablo). A particular and exclusive fan. The basketball genetic came to him many years ago, when he was a kid. It all began when he was given some tickets at school and went with a friend to see the CB Tizona, basketball club reference in the city at that time, when the club was playing in First B (equivalent to the LEB Gold currently). Since then the ball bounced as much as he in the stands, basket after basket, achievement after achievement.
After going to Madrid had to settle for follow him by the press, radio or television and recalls with great frustration the many promotions achieved on the court and lost in the offices. In view of these facts Roberto considers that the essence of sport has been lost.
While the essence of sport was being lost, Roberto also lost his sight. However, when he returned to Burgos, he did not hesitate to return to the stands to enjoy basketball, this time with a new team, Club Baloncesto Miraflores.
With Roberto’s comeback to the grandstand came a new partner, Stellar, his faithful dog and the person responsible for guiding him to his seat in the H1-1 grandstand where they both settle in and experience the game in a different way. Stellar received an honorary membership card from CB Miraflores, a unique fan, never better.
During the course of the games Stellar takes his little naps, away from the noise of the stadium and what happens in the game. His way of enjoying himself is by sniffing the snacks of the fans around him, eagerly waiting for a piece to fall near him, like any dog, the food is lost to him.
After losing his sight, Roberto has had to adapt to continue living the basketball and he has done it by means of a transistor through which he tunes Radio Arlanzón. From the voice of the announcer Juan Vicente Velasco, he listens to the game and although he cannot see it, what Roberto really loves is to enjoy it like a child and to feel the atmosphere of the Coliseum of Burgos, every pant, every sigh, every cheer, every ball touching the net are for him uncontrollable impulses of joy or frustration to which any sport has us linked…
The reality is that this sport, like so many other has evolved a lot and has become just another business, but its fans are still the usual, plain people who vibrate with basketball, seeing the colors of their team and the name of their city traveling all around Spain and abroad. A fan that is renowned as one of the best in the ACB League, and that is the essence of what sport should be, every breath is a triple in values and this is what Roberto recognizes as one more throat, he sings, boots, applauds his team, cheers on his rivals and even travels far from Burgos to encourage his team.
Stellar’s life is one of work but also one of mutual love between Roberto and himself. Roberto’s face lights up as he tells me how Stellar behaves. He tells me how Stellar knows San Lorenzo Street for that smell that reminds him of Burgos’ gastronomic delights. Or how Stellar stood in front of the door of a pizzeria as we walked.
A guide dog is a normal dog that has been instructed for certain tasks, but like all dogs, it likes to eat delicious and tasty food and Roberto tells us several gastronomic stories about Stellar. During Christmas last year, Roberto went to buy cotton candy and sat down on a seat in the Plaza Mayor of Burgos when he began to hear some shy laughter from a son and his mother, who told him that Stellar was eating the cotton candy from the bottom and Roberto from the top. Being such a greedy dog he is afraid that Stellar will eat something that is in the street and has been thrown out by some insensitive person to poison the dog, since in this city it has been the case…
Like any worker’s life, Stellar’s life also has an end, and his retreat is coming. That day is not a concrete time, it depends on the conditions in which he finds himself, basically when he begins to lead wrongly. Some dogs even work until they are ten years old. Once they are retired they are taken to a residence in Madrid but the dogs feel a great sorrow, so Roberto pretends to continue sharing his life with Stellar. He also shows me his concern because he knows that when they retire a guide dog they take some time to give him a dog again. Roberto looks to the future with some doubt, he has no idea how possible it will be to live with two dogs, besides how frustrating it can be for Stellar to be relegated as a guide dog. Added to that are the legal impediments since the guide dog that has been retired, according to current legislation, cannot access any facilities.
It hurts Roberto to think that day will come. The affection he feels towards fellow travellers like Stellar is great and if this animal is also the one that makes your life easier I don’t like to imagine how one can feel…
One of the most difficult moments to face for a blind person who has always moved with a guide dog is when you get older, there comes an age in which due to the physical impairments that affect all the mortals they are not allowed to move with a guide dog – ONCE makes a follow-up report of the psychological and health conditions periodically – since they lose reactions, orientation, strength… From that moment on they can only move with a guide dog, something that Roberto looks at today with a certain amount of fear. Perhaps the future is in the technological development…