James Cunningham was the first senior high-school student ever in Northern Ireland to have his own guide dog with him in class.
Now, just days away from beginning his Bachelor of Music Degree at Queen’s University in Belfast, James, alongside guide-dog Bart, is just about to become the second ever uni student and guide-dog double-act to hit one of Northern Ireland’s universities.
James, who is registered blind, only actually got Bart one year ago in September, but it feels like so much longer. He explained: “It’s been quite the journey so far!”
Indeed the pair caused quite the stir at Portadown College when James got Bart just last year, when they quickly became bona-fide celebrities in the town.
“Bart was famous in school, we were like a double-act,” said James.
“The initial reaction was shock – then chaos for about three weeks! Then things sort of settled down, but not really… like people sort of understood that they weren’t supposed to pet the dog, so they would sort of pretend that they weren’t! So it was much calmer – but they were being an awful lot more sneaky!”
James continued, “Bart’s a diva! He loves the attention. He goes mental. Once the excitement kicks off he’s running all about the place! If he’s in a room with a crowd of people he’ll go round each person individually in turn to get petted. You just can’t ignore him, you have to have a turn!”
Ian Baxter, NI Communications Officer for Guide Dogs & Blind Children UK, reckons the way has been paved for students with guide-dogs at Queen’s thanks to Masters student Stephen Campbell and his guide-dog Zym.
“We think it might be even easier for James because Stephen’s already done it!” laughs Ian. “It’s not so much of a novelty now having a dog in class!”
“It’s almost like the passing of the torch now that Stephen is just leaving and James is just about to begin – it’s been invaluable getting them together, with Stephen sharing his experience and giving James helpful tips and things to watch out for.”
James added: “Queen’s have been ensuring that the transition is smooth for me. Making sure that the accommodation is going to be set up on time and that all my teachers know the problems that I have and everybody’s ready and happy.”
“I will be staying in Student Halls and Bart will be in the room! He normally sleeps in my room at home in his own bed just beside mine, so I’m used to it.”
“There are also lots of signs around the campus instructing fellow students not to distract guide-dogs, and not to feed them which is important.”
It’s been quite the journey for this endearing double-act, with James’ life utterly transformed last year after receiving Bart. After previously being afraid to even go out on his own, it’s amazing that he is about to embark upon independently attending university almost an hour’s train-journey from his home to Belfast – all just with a little guidance from Bart.
“Having Bart has changed my life. I can go out without needing other people with me,” said James. “Basically, I have a life now – which is great!”
“Before I wasn’t able to go out independently at all – if I wanted to go out with friends, basically it was tough. I was quite afraid actually, of going out with my friends because I didn’t want to hurt myself. Dangers would have been walking into traffic and things, so it was quite daunting. But now that I’ve got Bart, well, it’s brilliant.
“School before wasn’t so bad because I had an assistant with me, she would have helped me get around and things. Then Bart came along last year and made things much more interesting!”
And Bart may just be the youngest ‘student’ ever to attend Queen’s University, as he only turns three this September. “He’s still a pup,” said James. “My little brother’s birthday is actually pretty much the same as his… So we can celebrate them both together!”
We sincerely hope Bart, who will be attending all classes with James after all, gets an honorary degree too.
Just like when Carlos Mora received his Masters of Science in Counseling this spring, his service dog, Kirsch, was also awarded an honorary degree for having attended all of his owner’s classes. Kirsch fit right in with the rest of the grads as he donned a cap and gown for the May 23 ceremony…
“Bart had training from when he was born basically for about two years,” said James. “Then I had two weeks of intensive training in Belfast where we were together non-stop in a safe environment.”
As for the difference between school and uni, James commented: “The schedule isn’t as busy compared to school – so I’ll be able to do a lot of studying at home in my room where I’m more comfortable rather than being in lecture halls 24/7 – so it will be a lot easier”
“There will be a lot of rehearsals and things to deal with – but Bart will be okay – he’s been to plenty of them already so he’s well used to it!”
James lists his favourite instrument are the drums, but he also plays guitar, piano, saxaphone, and classical clarinet (grade 8)!
He added: “Piano’s great – but drums are my favourite! I want to be a composer – leading orchestras and writing for concerts and films. That’s why I’m going to do a Masters after my Bachelors of Music. This programme is very classically orientated, it’s practical and that’s what attracted me to it.”
“Bart lies on the floor when I’m practising and does his best to ignore me!”
Yes it seems the one time Bart doesn’t come to investigate what all the noise is when, you guessed it, his pal is practising the drums…
“I practice my drums in the garage – but Bart stays in the house! He gets fed up!”
Remarkably, James has only had Bart for a year, but it feels like much longer he explained: “It’s been quite the journey so far!”
Both had special training – with Bart starting training from “when he was born basically for about two years – then I had two weeks of intensive training in Belfast in a safe environment.”
And in what way does James reckon Queen’s will differ from school? Three ways –
“Lots of people, cooking for myself, and lots of trains as well (to get my washing done)!” Certainly sounds familiar…
“Budgeting for myself is going to be pretty interesting as well! But I’ve got a part-time job at a restaurant, the Stonebridge Brasserie in Portadown on the Armagh Road, where I’ve worked for a year and a half. I hope to keep doing the carvery on a Sunday, and maybe get in to one of the many hotels around Queen’s as well!”
“I’m coming down in September to do some exploring! But I didn’t want to do any sooner because I didn’t want to jinx myself! I didn’t have a backup plan though – but I guess I could have busked on the streets!”