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Pamela Knudson, Forum News Service, Published March 24 2013

‘Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero’

GRAND FORKS - On Sept. 11, 2001, Michael Hingson, a blind man, made his way down 78 floors of the World Trade Center in New York City with the help of his guide dog. He had no idea the building had been struck, 18 floors above his office, by a plane commandeered by terrorists.

As he and his yellow Lab made their way down the steps, the stench of burning jet fuel filled the stairwell and it became hard to breathe, he remembers. They were hot and tired.

After an hour, they made it to the first floor where a police officer told them to get out of there, the building was coming down.

Running with his dog, Hingson could hear the South Tower begin to rumble, glass breaking, metal tearing, along with terrified screams — sounds he says he will never forget.

That experience, the lessons learned and the value of teamwork and trust will be part of Hingson’s talk at 7 p.m. Monday at the UND Memorial Union.

He is author of “Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero.” The book made its debut on the New York Times’ best-seller list in its first week of release in September 2011. Its name comes from his dog Roselle’s fear of thunder.

The day after 9/11, Hingson and Roselle were thrust into the international limelight, becoming well-known as examples of the partnership between the blind person and guide dog.

At UND, he intends “to expand people’s horizons about blindness as well as broaden limited ideas of what blind people can’t do,” he said in a recent phone interview with The Herald.

His story of 9/11 will be “different than what most people think about,” he said.

Many recall the loss of 3,000 lives and the collapse of twin skyscrapers on the worst day in the nation’s history, he said, but it’s important to consider, “what can we learn from 9/11?”

Two points stand out, he said.

“We learned that we don’t understand people who are different from us, and we haven’t learned the lessons of teamwork.”

The catastrophe was the result of effective teamwork, he said, “19 people, operating in a very coordinated way. That’s teamwork. The reality is, they laid plans well.”

Americans need to improve their capability for teamwork, Hingson said, pointing to the nation’s political leaders who, in attempts to resolve differences, “are not leaving any room for dialogue, and are not learning and remembering the value of working together.”

He and Roselle survived 9/11 because of a finely honed ability to work well as a team, he said, and the trust he had built with her.

“Dogs love, but that trust still has to be earned.”

Lessons that he learned about building trust with his dog can be translated to human relationships as well, he said.

Trust is built on a foundation of respect — for each other and for people’s differences “regardless of what they can or can’t do.”

With many years of sales experience and leadership behind him, he said, he‘s learned more about working in a team from his relationships with guide dogs than all the books he’s ever read by nationally acclaimed sales and motivational gurus.

While the actions of certain corporations and banks have eroded the public’s trust in recent years, “we should be demanding a higher level of trust” in leaders, he said.

In society and in the workplace, blind people face the barriers of “fear and lack of education,” Hingson said, “the same things we’ve always faced.”

About 75 percent of Americans fear blindness over any other disability, he said.

According to the Department of Labor, the rate of unemployment is 70 percent among the blind, he said.

“People are always being told what they can and can’t do. Blind people may be blocked from doing certain things, not because they can’t do them, but because (others) believe they can’t do them,” he said.

Yet, he said, “Blind people can do the same things everyone else can do,” maybe just in a different way.

“We all have gifts,” he said. People should not be denied opportunity because of disability, but be evaluated based “on what they demonstrate themselves” they can do.

“The prejudices run deep,” he said, but hard-won changes — an equal right to work, the right to bring guide dogs into public places, and access to insurance — represent important milestones.

Advancements in technology and “collective action by lots of different groups” are improving conditions for blind and other disabled Americans, he said.

In 2008, Hingson left his post as spokesman for the national organization Guide Dogs for the Blind to form his own business, the Michael Hingson Group, which provides consultation for corporations and organizations that need assistance with inclusive and diversity training.

He travels widely to give motivational talks aimed at inspiring his listeners and wiping out misconceptions about people with disabilities, according to his website.

In honor of his guide dog, who died in June 2011, Hingson has established Roselle’s Dream Foundation (www.rosellefoundation.org) to teach people about blindness and to help blind people obtain technologies which aid their education and work.

At UND, he will sign his book which is also available in print, audio and ebook formats through Amazon.com and major book retailers.

The talk is the first in UND Delta Gamma sorority’s Lectureship in Values and Ethics series, which was established with a gift from Jacque Geving Everson of Houston, a 1966 UND graduate, and was also funded by gifts from 75 other sorority alumnae.