Matt Simmons Navigates Through Life with Man’s Best Friend

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(Courtesy of Guide Dogs for the Blind)
Granby, Matt Simmons’ first guide dog, guides Simmons upon entering a BART station in San Francisco.

    Those who are blind often have different stories about how they lost their vision – some are blind from birth; some lose their vision over time and some lose their vision all at once.
    Matthew Simmons said he’s a mix of all three.
    Born in Connecticut, he moved to a small town near Philadelphia when he was three and then to Orinda at age 10. Simmons, now 19, said he was born blind in his left eye, diagnosed with Retinopathy of Prematurity.
    “I’m not even sure what that is today,” he said. “My right eye had perfect vision with glasses, and I functioned like every other kid. I was even going to be able to drive with one eye, though I couldn’t catch a ball to save my life.”
    Soon after moving to California, Simmons experienced other vision issues.
    “I was taking a spelling test when my vision randomly clouded over,” he said.
    While he doesn’t remember being scared, he ended up at the doctor’s office diagnosed with a different eye condition called familial exudative vitreoretinopathy (FEVR).
    “From that point on, I had low vision, which just meant I had to have bigger fonts for school assignments,” he said.
    Simmons had that degree of vision between the ages of 10-15. Halfway through his freshman year of high school, however, his vision deteriorated significantly.
    “The scary thing was that it all pretty much happened in one day,” he said.
    He added, “I would sometimes have to get shots in my eye to maintain my level of vision, but something else went wrong with my eye. I had a major eye surgery after that, and I was left being able to see only shapes and light.”
    His junior year he lost the rest of his vision.
    “I went to have major surgery to fix my eye, but once I came out of surgery, I couldn’t see anything,” he said.
    The two most common questions Simmons gets are, “what do you see” and “is it all black?”
    “Some totally blind people see all black, but the best way I can describe what I see is a bunch of different grays that are constantly moving,” said Simmons, who in his spare time enjoys lifting weights at the gym, playing the guitar and following the stock market.
    What Simmons lost in vision, he gained in other ways, by way of a guide dog named Granby in Dec. 2020. He was supposed to get a guide dog during his senior year, but the pandemic put a halt to that.
    Granby lives with him 24/7, and his name has a unique origin.
    “Guide Dogs for the Blind, the guide dog school Granby came from, names all their dogs. The naming system is interesting because for each litter, one letter is picked for all the puppies’ names, so Granby’s were named Glacier, Granit, etc.” Simmons said.
    Prior to Granby’s arrival, Simmons used a cane, which he still does at times. “A guide dog and cane are completely different tools for mobility. A cane gives tactile feedback for the surrounding environment, and you rely on tactile landmarks to know where you’re going,” Simmons said. “You lose out on all of that when using a guide dog.”
    He further explained that a dog gets trained to stop and find specific landmarks like curbs, stairs, doors, escalators and whatever else the guide dog user (also called handler) trains the dog to find.
    “The optimal way to use a guide dog is when the user knows the route,” Simmons added. “That way, there are clear directions for the dog and the dog doesn’t get confused.”
    Simmons said he hates using a cane when traveling and guide dogs are a better option.
    “The cane is meant to hit things to tell you information. It’s loud, clunky, inefficient and makes me feel dumb if I can’t find something,” he said. “The guide dog avoids all the obstacles, and if the dog is familiar with the route, then traveling is much quicker. Guide dogs also act as a social bridge. People aren’t scared of a dog walking down the sidewalk, but they fear a long white cane, and I think Granby’s going to be helpful at college.”
    Majoring in finance this fall at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, Simmons hasn’t decided what direction he wants to go.
    “I don’t have any real specific goals because I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I want to do,” he said. “I do eventually want to start my own business in whatever field I am in though.”
    With a positive outlook on life, Simmons said, “I just feel like in the end, everything will work out.”
    Granby by his side, Simmons chuckles at how much they are two peas in a pod by adding, “People always say Granby is the dog-version of me. They say he is mellow and quiet most of the time.”

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