Longtime readers of this column may recall an interview I did in November 2020 with Thomas Panek, president and chief executive of Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The non-profit organization, whose headquarters are in New York, specializes in pairing Blind and low vision folks with trained guide dogs. At the time, I reported on Panek’s participation in Google’s Project Guideline, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to assist people with vision loss in navigating streets. The project’s name is derived from the markings painted on roads, known as guidelines. Google’s tech was put to the ultimate test when it helped Panek, an avid runner, run a 5K marathon through NYC’s Central Park.
Over two years later, Panek’s company returns here. This time, for Kai Owens.
I sat down last week with Owens for an interview via videoconference.
The 19-year-old Owens, a sophomore at the University of Georgia majoring in music theory and Jazz, went through Guiding Eyes’ program with Pride, his German Shepard guide dog, and the pair graduated last June. A native of Statesboro, Georgia, Owens began experiencing vision loss in early childhood, at the age of 10. It wasn’t long before he started learning about the myriad assistive technologies for Blind and low vision individuals, including starting formal orientation and mobility training. He attended a public high school, enrolled in mainstream classes, and finished by being named valedictorian of his class.
Owens described his visual acuity as able to discern general shapes and colors most of the time, albeit not with great detail. “Then there’s spots, particularly around the very center of my vision, around my nasal region, that I don’t have anything except light perception,” he said. “My field of view is very limited in the center and kind of along the edges too. I have just large spots [in] my vision where I can’t see anything, but where I have just general blurry vision, or just blurry vision that I can’t read or anything. But I can see some general spatial features, but it’s very easy for me to miss things because of those large blind spots.”
In terms of the assistive technologies he uses for day-to-day living, Owens reads some Braille and touch types on a computer, and has only recently started to embrace screen readers such as the popular JAWS software for Windows. He does the bulk of his work on a PC laptop running JAWS, but his smartphone of choice is an iPhone. In addition, Owens uses a Braille display and a Braille tablet.
Owens is excited and intrigued by the advancements artificial intelligence will have on assistive technology for the disability community in the coming years. “I think there’s a lot of advancements kind of coming our way currently with the artificial intelligence technology that’s coming out for images,” he said. “I’ve done image identification [and] image descriptions based off of just pictures. Reading text, recognizing text and images—all of that’s coming along very quickly. I’ve seen a huge kind of leap, so I’m imagining that will continue to get better. I definitely plan on making use of everything I can in the future, just [to] make my life easier.”
Really, though, Owens’ biggest assistive tool is Pride.
Owens first learned of Guiding Eyes as he was working through the process of learning how to adapt to the world given his vision loss. During his aforementioned orientation and mobility training, it was brought up to him that a guide dog might prove an asset to his everyday life. As soon as he turned 16, Owens explained he started to earnestly “[look] at schools and talking to my orientation mobility instructors about their experience [with guide dogs]” and kept hearing rave reviews for Guiding Eyes. He interviewed and got into their program, but had to postpone attendance due to extenuating circumstances. He returned after the hiatus to match with Pride, graduating together last summer.
“It’s just been great. I mean, they were at the top of my list—it seems like everyone I talked to felt that way,” Owens said of his experience at Guiding Eyes. “It’s definitely lived up to my expectations. They’ve done a ton as far as communicating with me and getting me trained on the whole process. They train some amazing dogs, and the whole thing is obviously free to everyone who needs it and qualifies. So that’s just amazing. I mean, the fact of such generous donations from people and companies is amazing. Otherwise, there’s no way I could afford it or manage.”
As for how and what went into uniting with Pride, Owens told me the entire operation is fairly lengthy and comprehensive. The rigor makes sense, as Owens was not only signing up for faithful companionship—so too was the dog. Beyond any formal guide dog training, Owens was keen to emphasize the extremely salient point that Pride needs to receive as much care and courtesy as she gives Owens. She must be tended to like any other dog: fed, watered, walked, and more. Playing fetch, Owens said, is Pride’s preferred pastime in their backyard at home.
For prospective owners, there are stringent qualifications Guiding Eyes says applicants must meet in order to even garner consideration. Owens explained to me that “you have to have kind of a certain amount of capabilities with a long white cane for mobility.” Once it’s determined that someone is proficiently using a cane, representatives from the organization will then travel to a person’s home to interview them in person before doing an observation. “They [want to] see your skills with a cane [and] just make sure you’re aware of all the responsibilities, because it is a big responsibility to have a dog that you’re taking care of as your mobility aid,” Owens said. “And then from there, you’ll get accepted or not, but I got accepted.” The training regimen at the Guiding Eyes campus lasts two to three weeks, during which time Owens said program-goers have to “do a good bit of training with their professional trainers and your dog in particular.”
Dogs and their owners are typically matched based on the human’s walking speed and lifestyle, according to Owens. “For me, I’m a pretty fast walker and I’m really active,” he said of the life he leads alongside Pride. “I’m always out and about moving, so I got matched with an energetic dog that can keep up with me.”
Owens has parlayed his penchant for activity into distinction. He’s recognized as the world’s first Blind skimboarder. Owens showed an interest in board sports early on, picking up skateboarding when he was around four years old when he still was fully sighted. He describes skimboarding as being “adjacent” to surfing, although the skimboard itself is smaller than a surfboard and people don’t ride waves in the same manner surfers do. As for logistics, Owens said eyesight isn’t wholly necessary to anticipating breaks in the water and other factors; he acquired his skills at a surfing camp for visually impaired youth in North Carolina.
“For the most part I was using the little bit of sight that I had left, as well as just learning the beach and how the waves generally break,” Owens said of learning to surf as a Blind person. “Once you kind of feel or see the wave coming towards you from that point, you can kind of just do everything by feel. Once you’ve stood up, [the] wave just feels different depending on what it’s about to do, so you can kind of just follow based off that. I found [having vision] wasn’t necessary for it.”
Looking towards the future, Owens’ hope is to become an advocate for the Blind and low vision community, as well as act as an unofficial brand ambassador of sorts for Guiding Eyes. To that end, he’s started his own line of water apparel called EyeSwearApparel, which helps promote Braille literacy and Blind advocacy. Owens wants to people to understand that Blind people are eminently capable.
“I just want people to kind of understand that people with different disabilities, whether it’s blindness or anything else, are capable of a lot of things that might not be typically thought of with that disability. The average person wouldn’t think of skateboarding and surfing when they think of a blind person,” he said. “[People with disabilities] are all individuals: everyone has their preferences, everyone has their different things that they are into and find ways to work around. There’s really almost nothing that is impossible to do with disability, you just have to find ways around it. I [also] want make it known how amazing Guiding Eyes is with working with people with visual impairments and helping provide us these amazing guide dogs, who really help make our lives so much easier and make us much more capable to go out and be independent. They’ve helped [give us] confidence in ourselves and what we’re doing and just go succeed at life.”