Hari Dhoundiyal – Challenging Perceptions

Hari Dhoundiyal describes growing up blind in India as “interesting.” When he was in the fourth grade, he was accidentally poked in the eye, which resulted in injury to that eye. “It was only one eye,” he says, “but I lost my second eye because of the sympathetic effect.” (Sympathetic ophthalmia is a type of inflammation of both eyes following trauma to one; it can result in loss of vision in the second, uninjured eye, and eventual blindness.)

Hari working off-campus with his new dogAfter his eye accident, “it was difficult to accept that I was going to be blind for the rest of my life,” he says. However, one of the challenges Dhoundiyal faced – the biggest challenge, he says – was the perception, held by many of his family’s social circle, that being blind meant he had a limited future.

“My natural survival mechanism was destroyed by social conditioning, which put fear in me as opposed to my natural reaction to blindness,” he adds. “My actual reaction was that my life wouldn’t be devastating.”

Still, for every one individual who was negative about his future, there were 10 more who were positive. “It helped me stay on track,” he says. 

Much of Dhoundiyal’s youth was devoted to seeking treatment for his blindness. “My parents would do anything,” he recalls, to help him get his eyesight back, and they sought out every specialist and doctor they could.

It was a couple of years before he resumed his education. “I didn’t get any tools at first, except braille,” he says, “but even that was later.” His early instruction was done orally.

Dhoundiyal’s second cousin took him under his wing; to this day, he looks up to him as a mentor. “My cousin tutored me every day,” Dhoundiyal recalls. But this instruction went beyond the educational – it included integrating Dhoundiyal into a social life. “He took me with him wherever he went,” he says.

A new life in a new country
In 1984, Dhoundiyal’s father immigrated to the United States, ultimately settling in New York; the rest of the family, including Hari, remained in India. Five years later, Hari joined his father to seek additional medical treatment for his vision loss.

Although his formal education had been limited in India due to his medical treatments, the intensive, individualized education Dhoundiyal had received thanks to his cousin enabled him to easily pass the necessary placement tests to determine where he should be placed in high school.    

In August 1989, Dhoundiyal traveled to The Netherlands for more medical treatment for his eyes, before returning to the United States in early 1990. Now Dhoundiyal and his father had a decision to make: should they move back to India or bring the rest of the family to the United States?

“I didn’t want to go back,” Dhoundiyal says. He told his father that it would be better to bring the rest of the family to America; in 1995, the family was reunited when Dhoundiyal’s mother and four sisters came to the United States.

A “fire in the belly”
A high school teacher had told Dhoundiyal that to succeed, a person needed a “fire in the belly” – a strong determination to achieve success. He took that to heart.

Within months of his return to the United States after his medical treatment in the Netherlands, he had resumed his education and was engrossed in it. He had become part of the crowd. “I felt as if I had lived all my life in the US.” He was determined to catch up and finish his education.

Portrait of Hari and his guide dog sitting next to him.“I never took sick days, never missed school or classes, and arrived to class ahead of time,” he says. “When you’re deprived of something for a while, and then encounter it, you want to take in everything.” 

That “fire in the belly” would inform Dhoundiyal’s experience with higher education. After earning an associate’s degree at LaGuardia Community College, he continued on to Stony Brook University to earn a bachelor’s in political science. From there, he earned two master’s degrees – one in international taxation and the other in international tax and financial services, from St. Thomas University School of Law and Thomas Jefferson School of Law, respectively, and has a certificate in e-commerce and intellectual property.

Why a guide dog?
For many years, Dhoundiyal was a cane user. Even though he had good orientation and mobility skills, he often felt as though he had to be cautious when using a cane. He would notice other people using guide dogs and realized “having a guide dog would give me more independence.” 

Dhoundiyal approached getting a guide dog with the same intensity he applied to his studies. “I did my research,” he says, which including speaking his friends who used guide dogs and talking to representatives from different schools, including the Guide Dog Foundation. His first contact was with “Cathy T.” in the Consumer Services Office.  “She was very patient and explained everything,” he recalls.

He speaks highly of the entire application process with the Foundation. “They communicated with me on all aspects of the process, explained and interacted with me in a very simple, straightforward manner. They worked around my schedule.”

In August 1995, Dhoundiyal trained with his first guide dog, a female yellow Labrador Retriever. They were together for 10 years when she retired. He returned to the Foundation for his second guide; they were a team for several years when she developed cancer, cutting short her career.
 
Getting his third dog proved to be more emotionally challenging, Dhoundiyal says, because of his relationship with his second dog. “But in all our interactions, [the staff] at the Foundation understood where my strengths were to help make things go smoother during training,” he says.

Dhoundiyal trained with his third dog shortly after the Foundation changed to a two-week on-campus class. “It was quite intensive,” he says, “even for someone going with his third dog.”

With the 2:1 student/instructor ratio, students spend more time training together, even though the total class length is shorter. He laughs: “I didn’t get bored.”

Guide dog instructor Doug Wiggin trained Dhoundiyal with his first and third dogs. He says, “Hari is your dream student. He works hard to become the best team possible. He is the type of student who makes me appreciate what I do for a living.”

Advocacy
Dhoundiyal is currently working for Rosicki, Rosicki & Associates, a law firm with a long history of employing people with disabilities. Prior to joining the firm, he worked for the Nassau County Office for Physically Challenged (OPC), where he performed policy research. 

“It allowed me to analyze the good or bad aspects of policies that affect our lives, and identify the opportunities to push for changes,” he says; he’s still involved in policy advocacy as a volunteer. 

One thing he is especially proud of is his work on a guide dog protection act for New York state, which would increase the penalties for individuals who injure a guide dog, making it a felony; currently it is a misdemeanor. 

“The guide dog protection act is one I hold dearly,” Dhoundiyal says. At this time, the efforts are being made to introduce the bill in committee. 

Perceptions
Dhoundiyal has spent his life refusing to accept the perceptions placed on people who are blind. “I don’t see myself any different,” he says. He hopes his story inspires other people, especially people who are blind who are hesitant about getting a guide dog. 

What matters most in life, he believes, is trying. “Even if we haven’t achieved what we set out for, but we have helped someone else, that’s something.”