Justin and Edric like coffee. Like many University of South Florida students, they frequent Java City in the business bunker and Starbucks in the library, at least when the line is short.
Justin and Edric walk fast; they’ve got places to go. Sometimes they end up in the streets trying to maneuver their way to class.
Justin and Edric fidget. When he’s sitting and talking, Justin will shake his legs, not out of impatience but out of unconscious habit. Edric shakes; he’ll toss his head continuing the wiggle down his entire body.
Justin and Edric seem like any typical pair of friends found on college campuses. The only thing that separates them is that Justin Chan is blind; Edric is his guide dog.
* * *
Chan, a junior, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 8 years old. Born in the Philippines, he moved to St. Petersburg in 1999, where he received treatment at All Children’s Hospital. While in the hospital, Chan spent six months in a coma.
“For a little kid it was a lot,” Chan said. He underwent bone marrow transplants and stem cell transplants using his brother’s stem cells. Due to the transplants, Chan’s blood type was actually changed.
“They literally almost killed me,” he said. Though the treatments worked and Chan is now in remission, not all the side effects were beneficial. Born with 20/20 vision, Chan had a hemorrhage in his brain and blood got into his eye cavities, leaving him partially blind.
When he was released from the hospital, Chan went to live with his aunt and uncle in Port Charlotte, even though one of his brothers, his sister and his mother still live in the Philippines. Though he is now visually impaired, Chan doesn’t think his disability slows him down.
“People always ask how I do it,” Chan said. “It is just something you need to get used to.”
* * *
Upon approaching Java City in the business building, Chan finds the door handle. He and Edric get in line, accidentally skipping a woman who maneuvers around them. While in line, Edric sits next to Chan. The man waiting at the front of the line calls to Edric and Chan grimaces. He dislikes it when people call to his dog while he’s working.
Chan orders and pays with his card. The barista reaches for it cautiously. After she hands him his drink, Chan feels for the straw.
“Where are the straws?” he asks. The barista looks confused and mouths helplessly. She goes to nod in the direction of the straws but then thinks better of it.
“They’re over…,” she stumbles, searching for what she should say.
Not skipping a beat, Chan asks if they are at the condiment bar and heads in that direction. After feeling around for a minute, he casually asks where they are and I hand him one.
Heading outside, Chan asks if I see an available table. There is one so we head toward it. Chan tells Edric “seat” directing him to find an empty chair. Edric is a ladies’ man though and he tries to sit with me.
Edric does this often, Chan tells me. When selecting a seat in a classroom, Edric is supposed to lay his head in an empty seat and Chan will feel his way to sit down. Sometimes Edric puts his head in a girl’s lap.
* * *
USF is a spacious campus; that is one of the reasons Chan decided to attend. He spends his time divided between the business building where many of his classes in the College of Business are located and the library, where he works as a tutor for the Tutoring and Learning Services.
Chan used to navigate campus with a white cane that would detect objects in his path. He wanted a guide dog though. In July 2011, he was paired with Edric, a golden retriever who will be 3 years old in April.
“I kept putting it off,” Chan said. “I should’ve gotten him as a freshman.” Now Chan and Edric are inseparable. They are a team and it allows Chan to go about his day easier.
“I feel a lot more confident walking around with him,” Chan said. “He gets me around relatively well.”
Even still, Edric is a young dog and sometimes he gets distracted. Not only is he a ladies’ man, but he also gets super excited in large crowds. This is one of the reasons Chan doesn’t like it when people try to get his dog’s attention because he is easily distracted.
One afternoon, Edric was at the groomer’s and Chan had to use his cane for a few hours – he hated it. Having Edric allows Chan to move at the fast and efficient pace that dominates his life.
“My parents never let me say because you’re blind, that doesn’t mean you can’t do something,” Chan said. “Not to knock on other blind people. Some of them are babied by their parents.”
Sometimes the students he tutors are surprised when they realize he is blind. Some even wonder if he can help them.
Yet Chan has been honored with scholarships from the College of Business and is pursuing a double major in accounting and finance. He has a laptop and iPhone that talk to him and listens to lectures in class like every other student.
“I try to visualize what they are talking about,” Chan said. “I get general ideas of what journals and math equations look like.” When writing on the whiteboard Chan jokes that sometimes it can get messy, but he basically knows where things are spatially and mentally knows what he wants to write.
Chan says he would like to work as a tax accountant or for the government but at the same time, like many college students, he isn’t entirely sure and doesn’t want to tie himself down.
“I don’t know what I want fully, but I have a general direction,” Chan said.
Regardless, Chan spends a great deal of time working towards a career in accounting. He is a member of Beta Alpha Psi, an accounting fraternity. Recently, he led a team that presented on how their chapter utilizes technology at a regional conference.
A busy guy, Chan also traveled to Tallahassee to visit his girlfriend who received a concussion while playing goalball. Goalball is a sport designed for visually impaired athletes, which Chan also plays. In fact, he is hoping to get back into the sport soon.
After February, Chan will be finished preparing for his conference and “will need something else in life.” Always moving, he’s sure he’ll find something to do.