Shea Welch is a blind classical voice major at Belmont University who has learned how to get around with mental maps and her beloved dog Oleta.
Her freshman year, Welch arrived to Belmont one week early to work with an orientation and mobility specialist.
“You have to know where you are all the time,” said Welch.
While people who are blind are generally encouraged to use canes, Welch chose not to do so throughout grade school. There is a small issue with that, however: someone who is blind must be able to use a cane in order to get a guide dog.
Eventually Welch did what she had to do.
Oleta means “little one with wings.” The female black lab was given to Welch by an organization in New York with $50,000 worth of training all paid for by Guiding Eyes for the Blind. This organization helps many like Welch by training puppies and raising the money on its own.
Oleta is trained to walk in straight lines and avoid obstacles. She also knows commands such as “to the curb” or “to the elevator,” said Welch.
Welch finds Belmont’s free-spirited students accepting of who she is. Some people like dogs, and it is easier for them to form a connection with someone when something is found in common, said Welch.
“It helps to have Oleta because she breaks down that barrier people feel between me, my disability and them,” said Welch.
Welch, like others, is taking 16 credit hours – not officially counting the other four she audits.
Professors provide her assignments in electronic formats so they can be accessed through her computer.
There are a few differences from grade school to now. Her accommodations are not as extensive, and there are no more one-on-one assistants.
“That’s not a thing anymore. I’m on my own basically,” said Welch.
On her own with Oleta, Welch is a diverse student giving direction to her dog, who gives direction to her.