Beth Finke, Mike Knezovich and their son Gus during a family holiday in Lake Geneva, Wis., 1991. That's Pandora, Beth's first guide dog, in front pulling the load.
What made you decide to write a childrens book?
After my first book, Long Time, No See was published I started doing book signings and presentations at book fairs, conferences, schools, libraries, and bookstores all over the country. Long Time, No See is about my marriage, raising our son, and the adaptations Ive made to survive and thrive after losing my sight. One chapter of the book focuses on training with my first Seeing Eye dog. Over and over again, the questions most people asked during the Q & A sessions after my presentations dealt with that one particular subject: my Seeing Eye dog.
People especially children are fascinated with Seeing Eye dogs. And though they may have seen television programs about guide dogs, the people I met didnt know much about how the dogs were trained, or what the rules are when they see a guide dog at work leading a person who is blind. I thought a childrens book might be a fun way for children and their parents to learn more.
What are the rules when you see a guide dog leading a person who is blind?
Well, as Hanni tells you in the book: I like people, but they shouldn't pet or talk to me while I'm working. That way, I can pay close attention to Beth. That way, we'll be safe.
How can you tell when a guide dog is working?
The harness tells you. When a guide dog is wearing a harness, it means they're working. Even if they are sitting quietly under a table, they're at work. And you shouldn't pet or talk to them.
So do guide dogs never get to be pet or talked to by others?
I take Hanni's harness off the minute we get home. When her harness is off, my husband Mike and anyone else who is visiting can play with and talk to her.
Does Mike feed her?
The guide dog user should be the only one to feed his or her guide dog, it helps with bonding. And this way, should the dog ever get sick, the guide dog user will be able to report to a veterinarian exactly what the dog has eaten. So that's a third rule when it comes to guide dogs: don't feed them anything, especially not people food. Hanni goes everywhere with me including restaurants and I don't want her to think she can ever just jump up on a table and gobble up a steak!
I have so many more questions. Where can I find out more about Seeing Eye dogs?
Well, of course, a fabulous place to go for more information is the book, Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound! You can also find out more about Seeing Eye dogs by linking to the Seeing Eye's frequently asked questions.
I'm curious about you, too. When did you lose your sight?
In 1985, when I was 26 years old.
How did you lose your sight?
I have had type 1 diabetes since I was seven. A disease called diabetic retinopathy caused my blindness.
Is blindness common in diabetics?
Most people don't know it, but diabetes is the leading cause of new blindness in working-age adults.
You said you are married. Had you already lost your sight when you got married?
No. Mike and I were on our honeymoon when I first started seeing spots in front of my eyes. The first year of our marriage was spent with Mike driving me back and forth to specialists 150 miles away. We all did all we could to save my eyesight. Unfortunately, nothing worked.
How did life change after that?
Oh, in so many ways. I had to learn new ways to read, write, cook, dress, and get around on my own. In many ways I felt like I was going through adolescence again, very uncertain of myself but trying to look competent in front of my peers, wanting very badly to be accepted by others even though I felt different. And one of the most significant changes to my life back then was being out of work. When I lost my sight, I lost my job.
Isn't that illegal?
I lost my sight and my job in 1985. That was before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed.
What did you do for work, then?
I tried all sorts of things. I was a volunteer coordinator, I played the piano in a fiddle band, I babysat kids, I sold tickets over the phone for a minor league baseball team, I even modeled nude for art students. But finally I settled in on a job I love: writing.
Wait a minute. Did you say something about modeling nude?
Yeah, I started doing that when I turned forty. I modeled for drawing classes at University of Illinois , and at the local community college, too.
What ever made you decide to become a nude model?
I was out of work back then and pretty bummed out about it. On Sundays Mike read me the want ads. When he came to the one about needing nude models, he read it out loud as a sort of joke. I memorized the phone number without telling him and called for an audition.
Did you like your job modeling?
It was okay. A thing I didn't like about it was that I got achy sometimes, standing in one position. The good part was that I felt I was still part of the visual arts. Another thing: staying still so long gave me lots of time to think about my writing, how to reformulate a lead, how to get across a certain idea. In fact, I used that quiet time to put together my very first published essay. I composed it in my head and then typed it into my talking computer the minute I got home. "Nude Modeling: Going In Blind" was picked up by "Alternet" and published in alternative newspapers all over the country.
What do you write?
I've written two books, and I also write for National Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio. My articles have appeared in Woman's Day, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, The Writer, Business Law Today, Dogs for Kids, Dog Fancy and The Bark.
In addition to writing, I do a lot of public speaking, which I love.
You say you've written for Dogs for Kids, The Bark and Dog Fancy Magazine. Do you write about Seeing Eye dogs?
For those magazines, yes. But my articles in other magazines and newspapers are about all sorts of different things.
How do you write without being able to see? Do you write in Braille?
No. I write using a computer equipped with a screen reader.
How does a computer like that work?
A speech synthesizer parrots the letters as I type. That way I can hear and fix my typos as I go along. I can manipulate the keys to make the synthesizer read a page of type by word, by line, or by paragraph when I want to check for spelling and grammar. I learned a whole lot more about talking computers in 2006, when I started working on a Technology Opportunities Project with Easter Seals Headquarters in Chicago. Easter Seals teamed up with Convio, a software company, to come up with a program to allow blind people to create and manage web pages without being able to see. I helped them figure out if it works.
Does your keyboard have Braille on it?
Braille templates do exist, and some blind people put them over their regular computer keyboard. I've never used one myself. Most keyboards come with a dot or indentation on the f and j keys that seem to be enough of a guide for me. I feel for the indentations on those letters to make sure I'm on the home keys and take it from there. It helps that the synthesizer parrots everything I type -- I can hear when I'm making mistakes.
But didn't I hear you say you have a son? How do you manage all this writing, teaching, public speaking -- and take care of him, too?
Oh, Gus is a young adult now. He was born in 1986, a year after I'd lost my sight.
How did Gus react to your blindness?
You know, I'm not really sure Gus realizes I'm blind. Gus was born with disabilities of his own, the result of a genetic defect.
Was that because of your diabetes?
No, Gus' genetic defect had no correlation to my Type 1 diabetes or blindness; it was just a fluke of nature. His condition is called Trisomy 12p. It's kind of like Downs Syndrome, but more severe, and not as common.
And what are his disabilities?
Gus needs help dressing, eating, toileting and bathing. He can crawl and sometimes uses a walker to get around. Otherwise, he travels by wheelchair. He can hear, and he makes noises, but he doesn't talk. Instead, he communicates by scooting to whatever he wants. He loves to hear music he laughs and claps his hands whenever he does and often scoots over to a piano bench to let people know he wants them to play.
Does he live with you?
He lived with us until he was 16, and then moved to Wisconsin to live at the Bethesda Lutheran Home. Now he lives in a group home in Wisconsin that is owned and managed by the Bethesda organization. We miss him, but we visit him often and we know he's in good hands.
Are you working on any new books?
I teach a memoir-writing class for Chicago senior citizens and am putting together a book about my experience with all those wonderful students. The working title is Mondays with Minerva. We meet on Mondays, and Minerva an 85-year-old from the South Side of Chicago is the grand dame of our class.
How does Hanni like traveling around to promote your current book?
She loves it, she is a very curious girl and loves going to new places. By the end of the day, though, she's as tired as I am. Our travel days end the way Hanni describes in Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound except we're in a hotel room instead of our apartment in Chicago. Her harness comes off. She enjoys some playtime; she gets a lot of hugs and a treat from me. And as she says in the book, And then I remember how important my job is and how special I am.
One Last question. Okay, make that two last questions. How do you pronounce Hanni? And how did she end up with such an unusual name?
Hanni's name rhymes with Bonnie. The puppies in each litter born at the Seeing Eye all get names that start with the same letter of the alphabet. Hanni was from the "h" litter. The Seeing Eye tries to avoid letting any of their working dogs end up with the same name, they don't want to confuse one dog with another. They must have already used Helen, Heather, Hillary, Helga, and so on. So they came up with Hanni!