With her dog, life takes on a new perspective
For years, people said, “Clare, you’re clumsy. You fall over everything.” She never knew why the soccer ball seemed so elusive; why she felt so inept. “They thought I wasn’t paying attention,” she says. “And I was so determined, thinking, ‘But I am paying attention. I don’t know how to pay more attention, no matter how hard I try!’”
As a toddler, Clare Weigel never spoke, and her parents were shocked to learn she was deaf. She received her first cochlear implant before turning two and her second at seven. “It was tough—I was in speech therapy for ten years,” she recalls. But her hearing impairment didn’t explain the trips and falls.
As a high school freshman, she couldn’t wait to get her driver’s permit. Clare studied for the test and carefully planned her outfit for the license photo. A few days before the appointment, she saw her eye doctor for an annual checkup.
“I want another doctor to take a look,” the doctor said. Clare’s eyes stumped several specialists but eventually, they identified the diagnosis.
“I found out in the same five minutes that I’d been mostly blind my entire life and did not know it.
“It was Usher Syndrome,” she says. “It’s a hereditary disease—with type 1, you’re deaf from birth, you have balance issues, and your vision loss is progressive.
“It was bewildering,” she continues. “I found out in the same five minutes that I’d been mostly blind my entire life and did not know it. I was now ineligible for a driver’s license, but I was eligible for a guide dog—all in the same five minutes. I cried for five hours straight. It was a lot to process, and I went through all the stages of grief.”
With help from supportive parents, Clare made it through the awkward teenage years, reluctant to disclose her vision problems after being the only deaf girl in school. Slowly adjusting to her new reality, she attended Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, studied abroad in London, and graduated with a degree in journalism and public relations. During the slower pace of the pandemic, she applied and was accepted to grad school at Georgetown University.
Meanwhile, her vision worsened, and trips and falls became a daily threat. At her doctor’s urging and with looming plans to move to the unfamiliar Washington, D.C., Clare turned to Southeastern Guide Dogs. And that’s how she met her new best friend, co-adventurer, and guide dog.
Clare first met Fin when the Southeastern Guide Dogs instructor visited her home in Tampa, Florida, for a preliminary test walk.
“I told my family, ‘It’s just a test walk. At least I’ll know what it feels like to hold a harness,’” she says. “Then Fin bounces out of the van, and I immediately fall in love with him. We put the harness on, and we’re walking, and Fin stops at a crack in the sidewalk. He looks at me, and that’s when I know. I one-hundred-percent know. My mom says later, ‘You love him, don’t you?’ and I answer, ‘I do!’
“Later, I remember getting the phone call, and they tell me they found the perfect dog for me. I’m so excited. When the instructor arrives at our front door, I ask, ‘Is it Fin?’ and she says, ‘Yes, Fin is the only choice for you.’ I am so happy!”
Under Fin’s guidance, Clare can now see what she’d been missing. Before Fin, she peered low, scanning for tripping hazards, but now she holds her head high. “Oh my gosh, there are so many things I’ve never noticed before,” she exclaims. “My dad said, ‘You look taller,’ and my mom told him, ‘Yes, because she’s not hunched over. She’s not looking at the ground.’”
Fin goes everywhere with Clare, and the two make quite a vision when Clare enjoys her favorite hobby: photography. “I’m sure it must be ironic for people to see a woman with a guide dog and a camera,” she says, laughing. “I’ve always loved photography, and I actually see better through the camera’s scope.”
Clare says there are two Fins. “Working Fin is determined and focused. He’s like, ‘I’m going to get you where you’re going.’ Georgetown is ninety percent brick sidewalks, so there’s always a brick out of place. Fin sees it and stops, his paw perfectly on the out-of-place brick. He’s like, ‘I found this. You won’t trip on it now.’ But Fin out of harness—he’s the goofiest dog you will ever meet. He’s bouncy and joyful.
“Working with Fin is amazing,” she adds. “I feel way more confident going out the door. Fin gives me peace of mind. I know he’s got me.”
Double your Donation
Check out the video version of Clare’s heart-warming story in this episode of Dogs of Destiny.