A friendly pair of milk-chocolate-colored eyes greet those who enter Bruce Winick’s office in the University of Miami School of Law Library.
They belong to an over sized black Labrador Retriever named Bruno. Bruno welcomes new people with the same excitement any dog would, tail wagging and long pink tongue hanging from his open mouthed grin.
Behind those natural instincts, however, is the reserved obedience that could only belong to a seeing-eye dog.
Laughter comes from behind the giant three-year-old dog, where a man with just as friendly brown eyes sits back in a leather chair smiling. He reaches his hand out and introduces himself as Bruce Winick.
Winick is the Laurie Silvers & Mitchell Rubenstein Distinguished Professor of Law at the UM School of Law, and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the UM Miller School of Medicine.
He lost the majority of his eyesight in his late 20s. He was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a congenital disorder which causes gradual deterioration of sight. He had to give up driving 22 years ago and riding a bike a little over a decade ago as his sight has continued to worsen.
He was recruited to teach law at the UM in 1974.
Modern technology made it unnecessary for Winick to learn brail. Computer software reads books, newspapers and e-mails aloud and a device called the Colorino identifies the colors of clothing so he can coordinate outfits. Bruno helps him get around.
“I’ve made my adjustments,” Winick said. “This happened to me gradually, and luckily adaptive technology is on the rise.”
Listening intently to Winick’s words and making lighthearted empathetic comments is Tyler Kirk, a 26 year old first year UM law student. On the floor beside him sits Sailor, a 3-year-old black lab, smaller than Bruno but with the same purposeful manner and warm disposition.
In a gray UM t-shirt and jeans, Kirk seems just like any other student on campus. He takes the Hurry ‘Cane shuttle to class and spends study breaks at the gym, playing guitar and hanging out at Monty’s with friends.
But Kirk deals with things that other students don’t have to on top of the rigorous demands of law school. He lost most of his vision at age nine from Stargardt’s Disease, an inherited degeneration of the retina that often affects children and young adults. Kirk is still sensitive to light, but he can’t really remember what it was like to see normally.
“It’s like having to give up chocolate when you’ve never tasted it,” Kirk said.
Disability services were a determining factor in Kirk’s search for a law school. A video on the UM School of Law website describing the services offered to students with disabilities, in which Winick appears, sparked his interest in Miami.
“It’s a comfort to know Professor Winick is on staff here,” Kirk said. “There’s someone who understands the steps we have to go through in daily activities.”
Kirk hasn’t let his disease set him back. He earned his bachelor’s degree in economics and political science at Georgia State University and his masters in economics at North Carolina State University.
When his sight worsened, he decided to study law. Law is an accessible field for the visually impaired, since most material is straight text as opposed to economics, where Kirk had to deal with equations and graphs.
“I’m actually ahead in the work for most of my classes,” Kirk said. “That wouldn’t have been possible before.”
About five percent of the human population carries gene mutations causing inherited retinal diseases.
The UM School of Law has its own Office of Disability Services. Student Services Coordinator Iris Morera works on disability accommodations and general student concerns along with Dean of Students Janet Stearns. Morera met Tyler during orientation in August and has been working with him ever since.
“Tyler is super independent,” Morera said. “He’s easy-going and very willing to try new things.”
Morera informs Kirk’s professors about his needs and checks up on how he is doing. Including two students at the law school, there are 14 visually impaired students currently registered with the Academic Resource Center at UM.
Morera said it didn’t take Kirk long at all to learn his route from University Village to his classes with Sailor by his side. Sailor knows directions and stops to warn Kirk if there are steps or any potential dangers in his path. Plus, there are some perks to having such a cute companion.
“Girls really like dogs,” Kirk said. “Traveling with Sailor is like traveling with a celebrity.”