Students from many different disciplines at University Campus enjoyed a rare opportunity earlier this month to interact with a survivor of the 9-11 attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center, and to hear how the event changed his life and career.
Saint Leo University, working with an association of liberal arts institutions called the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), sponsored nearly a week’s worth of various classroom visits and small-group gatherings with Michael Hingson. Hingson, who has been blind since birth, brought his current guide dog, Alamo. The two function as a team (pictured). Together they visited through the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows Program organized by the CIC to make noteworthy professionals and artists from outside the academic world available for campus visits. Hingson spoke at classes whose focus range from political science to medical and human services.
While Hingson spoke often about Alamo’s background at their various sessions at University Campus, Hingson also spoke often about one of his previous dogs, Roselle. Roselle was with him, as usual, at his sales management job for a technology company when the World Trade Center was attacked. The two walked out of the building together, down 78 flights of stairs, setting a path that helped guide others out as well. After that, Hingson gave many media interviews and became a professional speaker advocating for greater inclusion for those with disabilities. He also wrote the book Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero, which is now in paperback.
Dr. Heather Parker, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the many layers of Hingson’s life story and his broad base of knowledge made him a good choice for this year’s Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow for Saint Leo University. “One of the College of Arts and Sciences' initiatives is to promote inclusivity by increasing awareness about the diverse populations within our university and throughout the larger community,” she said. “Often, in discussions about inclusivity, accessibility is left out of the conversation. It is important for us to reflect on the ways in which people who experience physical challenges navigate their world. Also, it is important for us to discuss the changes that must be made to ensure that all people are able to engage equally in the benefits of society.”
Speaker well-versed in the animal-human bond
Hingson was able to speak in detail to an interdisciplinary class called Service and Therapy Animals (pictured) about the distinctions between animals that are well and specifically trained, with their owners, to provide service and guidance, and the more loosely described comfort pets. The latter may include animals that some travelers want with them on commercial aircraft, but that do not have what Hingson and others consider appropriate training and do not behave correctly in transportation settings or in restaurants.
Students in the class, taught by social work professor Dr. Rhondda Waddell, may well encounter such scenarios in their careers. Hingson also described the regulations and laws in place for service animals in various settings.
His experiences and knowledge proved riveting to Dr. Allyson Marino’s students in Selected Topics in Medical Humanities. “It was amazing to hear how he was born blind yet he is able to do things that most people can’t,” one student wrote in comments. For instance, as a young man, Hingson earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the University of California at Irvine, and that helped him onto a path to an early career in technology training, and then in technology sales.
“Blindness isn’t the problem,” Hingson often said during the week. Ignorance of solutions and the capabilities of those with disabilities can be the real problem, he would say. One of the reasons he and Roselle were able to escape their endangered surroundings on 9-11 was that he had familiarized himself with the layout of the building and exits when he went to work there, in case of an emergency. That way he could tell Roselle which direction to take them so that she could guide them as a team around any obstacles and move to safety. Familiarizing himself with his surroundings was something he learned as a boy, with the encouragement of his parents, even before he got his first guide dog.
The medical humanities students, Dr. Marino said, “asked engaging questions about his life and his use of a therapy animal. Overall, I thought it was a perfect visit for our future physicians and caregivers. We have been talking a lot about empathy and about narrative medicine. Hearing his story and about the way he has to ‘read’ oral texts, something that many of us take for granted, will make them better caregivers.”
Faculty teaching composition and public speaking classes also asked to have Hingson come visit. As a speaker and ambassador, he has become adept at constructing and delivering narratives, and it benefitted students to observe his communication skills, his lively banter, and his knack for persuasion. For instance, Hingson would tell students that he would let them play with Alamo at the end of his presentations if they asked interesting him questions first. This was also another pathway into explaining the work protocol for a service dog. Whenever Alamo is wearing his harness, Hingson explained, the dog is working and should not be distracted – and passers-by are asked not to pet Alamo in those moments. When the harness is off, Hingson said, “he’s not working, and he can play.”
On a more serious note, Hingson was also asked to speak about his 9-11 experiences to upper-level classes dealing with politics and terrorism and legal topics in counterterrorism. The faculty teaching those courses felt Hingson’s presence in the classroom would be significant to their students.
Hingson also gave a well-received evening talk on February 19 that was open to the public. He covered the arc of his life and early education to 9-11 and his current career. (Pictured: Michael Hingson met Saint Leo Univeristy’s Dr. Susan Kinsella and President Jeffrey Senese before his talk.) The author turned 70 just this week.