Thankful for a Voice | A Blind Girl Speaks Out!

I don’t really know what happened.  I wasn’t that sick, but suddenly my voice just sort of left me, and a painful cough took its place.  For the last four days, I’ve been on strict vocal rest, which is difficult for a singer and a socializer.  I didn’t think about how it would impact my interactions with the public, however.

“I’m outside Panera.” I whispered into the phone, because that’s all I could manage.

“You’re where?  I can’t really hear you.”

“Outside the doors of the Panera!” I tried again, “I have a guide dog and I’m wearing a black coat.”

“Oh, I think I see you.  You have a dog?”

“Yes!” I replied, relieved that even if he hadn’t heard me he found me and I didn’t have to wait much longer in the 15 degree weather.

I got in the Lyft and got home, thank God, but my vocal issues had made it incredibly difficult to communicate with my driver to tell him where I was.

A similar thing happened a day later.  A gracious friend of mine volunteered to drive me to the pet store to pick up some emergency dog food for Prim.  We entered the pet store, and I was immediately struck by my hindered ability to scold my guide dog for trying to chase the cat she saw upon entry.  Turns out whispered commands to your dog to “leave it” when there is a cat right in front of their nose is really not that effective.

The kicker, though, was when we stopped at CVS on the way back to collect some soup and cough drops and other such necessary items.  Prim followed my friend into and throughout the store like a champ, and we found the things we needed without too much trouble.  When we arrived at the counter, I set my items down and waited as the cashier scanned them.

“Do you live with her?” The lady asked my friend.

“No, just a friend.” She replied.

“She agreed to drive me around tonight.” I added with a smile, though I felt my smile falter a little when I realized what had come out of my mouth was barely recognizable as spoken word.

“Who takes care of her then?”

“I take care of me.” I answered, patiently, still in a whisper.

“She said she takes care of herself.” The cashier observed in shock to my friend, and then to one of her coworkers as we left.

Yes, madam, that is what I said.  I take care of myself.  She clearly found that hard to believe, since I am blind.

I desired desperately to educate her.  I wanted to tell her that, not only do I care for myself, but I care for my guide dog, and sometimes, when necessary, my sighted friends too.  I wanted to say that blind people can live quite independently, with the right training and techniques.  I wanted to tell her that I’d been living on my own 12 hours drive from my family for almost 5 years now, since I moved to Tennessee at 18.  I wanted to tell her I’ve traveled internationally by myself three times, and within the U.S. hundreds of times… that I’d been white-water rafting, and rock climbing, and hiking, and horseback riding, and kayaking and jet skiing, and spelunking, and I’d sung, danced, and acted in operas and plays and musicals, had a bachelor’s degree, and was planning on moving internationally for a master’s.

But I couldn’t say any of that because I couldn’t talk.

I’ve been blind for 16 years now.  I’m pretty used to comments like the ones I heard at CVS last night.  I’ve learned to say something, but once that’s done, it’s all I can do.  Eventually, I just have to let it go and allow my life to be the proof, but I felt robbed of that power yesterday, of my ability to advocate through speech.  It upset me, but mostly it made me thankful that, on the regular day-to-day, I do have a voice.  I can speak up to defend my own freedom of independence and the freedom of other blind people to live the lives they want.  I can share my experiences and challenge a sighted world to raise their expectations for the blind.

Not only do I have a voice on an individual, physical level, but also on a macro, socio-political-economic level.  As an American citizen with first amendment rights to free speech, I can write articles like these to spread the word throughout this entire vast country that blind people ARE capable.  I can vote for policy and policy makers that I think will advance the rights and privileges of blind Americans.  I can show employers that there is a valuable workforce of competent, passionate people that are currently being largely ignored because of their blindness.  I can tell our nation that blind people are a people without physical sight, but not a people without vision, or drive, or ingenuity, or skill, or, as I’m pointing out here, a voice.

Today is January 4th, a day many in the blind community know as Louis Braille’s birthday.  Braille should have been as life changing to the blind as the invention of the printing press was for the sighted a few hundred years earlier.  I say “should have been”, because while Braille’s invention did a great deal to change the state of blind people, and loose them from the chains of poverty and dependency, it hasn’t done enough.  According to a study from Cornell University, only 42% of visually impaired Americans ages 21-64 were employed in 2015, and that is a high estimate given that the associated unemployment rate did not account for those blind Americans who were not actively participating in the workforce (Erickson).  The National Federation of the Blind reports that 29% of the same population in the same year were living under the poverty line (Statistical Facts About Blindness in the United States), as compared to 13.5% in the general population (United States Census Bureau).  Those statistics start to paint a picture of the devastating impact that negative perceptions of blindness have on our success and thriving as a segment of society.

I’m tired of being told I can’t, and I’m thankful that I have a voice to reply, “I can, I do, and I will!”

 

Works Cited:

Erickson, W., Lee, C., von Schrader, S. “Disability Statistics.” The American Community Survey (ACS), Cornell University Yang-Tan Institute, 2017, Ithaca, NY, http://www.disabilitystatistics.org/reports/acs.cfm?statistic=2

“Statistical Facts About Blindness in the United States.” NFB, National Federation of the Blind, 12/2017, nfb.org/blindness-statistics

United States Census Bureau. “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016.” Report Number: P60-259, Jessica L. Semega, Kayla R. Fontenot, and Melissa A. Kollar, U.S. Census Bureau, Sept. 12, 2017, http://www.census.gov/library/publications/2017/demo/p60-259.html

 

Thankful for Accessible Technology | 30 Days of Gratitude, Day 6

Sometimes, it’s fun to envision what life would have been like a hundred or more years ago.  Imagine a life without digital media, for example, or consider how different transportation was when cars had only just been invented.  What interests me, though, is how life must have been different for the blind.

Some blind people did live independently, had children, and held jobs, like the famous hymn writer Fanny Crosby.  But what was it like?

On the one hand, I’m a bit jealous.  Any society before the invention of cars must have been a great deal more pedestrian friendly, and therefore, blind-friendly, even in the absence of modern infrastructure.  On the other hand, I wonder how blind people managed without ways to independently access printed materials around them, or easily produce them on their own.

I’ve written a few songs in my time—it’s hard to avoid when you live in music city—but Fanny Crosby had over 8000 hymns published!  Then, she would have had to memorize all of her texts and music, written it down in braille and had it transcribed, dictated it to a sighted person to pen them, or penned them herself.  Of course, the only way she could have accessed them again would be through her memory, braille, or a sighted reader.  Evidently, her memory was impeccable.  According to the website I referenced earlier, she memorized five chapters of the Bible a week.

I definitely do not exercise my memory quite that often or to that extent, so perhaps that’s another advantage that antiquity has over modernity for blind folk.  Otherwise, I’m thankful that now a days, accessible technology means that I can easily record music (even as I write it) on my phone, type the lyrics into my computer, review what I have written, and share them with sighted friends, all independently and with very little extra effort on my part.

I am especially thankful for the way assistive tech has made the bible available to the blind in a way it never has been before.  I don’t have to carry volumes and volumes of braille bibles around with me to have constant access to the word of God, nor do I have to have it read to me and memorize five chapters a week, though there’s no doubt that would be a profitable exercise.  But no.  All I have to do is have a charged iPhone with a wifi connection, safari or a bible app, and voila.  The whole word of God is at my fingertips…

“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Psalm 119:18)

He has made his word known to us, and not only known, but accessible for study, teaching, comfort, evangelism, truth.  Accessible technology means I, along with other blind people, get to behold the wondrous things of his law by myself, on my own time, in essentially whatever format I choose, and whichever book or verse I prefer to study.  I do not think there is any more valuable gift.

And I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them. (Isaiah 42:16)

Thankful for Tools | 30 Days of Gratitude, Day 2

In my kitchen, we have a table with four chairs.  It’s quite an ordinary table… not especially fancy, not especially ratchet (surprising for an apartment full of jobless graduates and students), but there is one ratchet chair amongst the four which I always avoid.  Every time I sit on it, it tilts, and I look down to find one leg at an alarmingly awkward angle.

The first time I noticed this, I alerted my roommates, and rushed to my zebra-print tool kit, which randomly appeared in my closet a few months ago, to search for a wrench, but was unsuccessful.  Thus, the chair has remained lame for weeks upon weeks, and somehow, by the grace of God, neither me nor any of my three roommates have gone tumbling to the laminate with the sudden collapse of the untended limb.

Finally, though, I decided enough was enough.  I was sure I had pliers, and reasoned that a pair of pliers would be more adept than my fingers at re-screwing the wanton bolts into place.  Of course, the moment I overturned the chair and began the operation, my blind roommate appeared in the doorway, in search of her coffee and bagel on the table.  As the way was currently blocked, I hurriedly called out a warning to stop, before my patient was injured further and I would need something more than pliers to repair the damage to both furniture and roommate.  I handed her the  sought food items, then returned to my work.  A brief examination revealed that, actually, two of the legs had loose bolts, so I attended to both, and after a good deal of growling and difficulty, the task was complete.

My ratchet chair now stands unevenly, but with all four legs firmly in place, and I am very thankful that my toolkit had pliers, and that they can serve, at lease semi-successfully, as a makeshift wrench.  Three cheers for tools, and three cheers for chairs that won’t give way at any moment.

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 12|Yorktown…1781

We visited Yorktown on Friday.  No no, not Yorktown like from Hamilton, Yorktown, New York.  I know.  These things can get confusing.  Friday was our day for night travel, so we did the route in the daylight early in the morning, then repeated it after the sun went down that night.  In between we had our visits with the vet.

Prim was very excited about the new route, so we worked on, you guessed it, steady.  She did the route very well, only overstepping one curb and not at all distracted by the grass and street furniture that we passed.  We encountered one loud truck that she stopped for, even though we were on the sidewalk.  She was just being a bit cautious, I think leftover from our traffic check activity on Thursday.  The night route went similarly, other than the fact that it was dark, but that didn’t change much about my perspective really.  Our trainer huffed and puffed behind us like usual, and we had a blast.

At the vet, I learned Prim’s weight, birth date, and health history.  The vet gave her a full physical, and pronounced her healthy but for a slight ear infection in one ear.  She will be on medication for that for the next several days and we will visit the vet a second time before we leave to make sure it is all cleared up… which reminds me.  I need to choose a vet for Prim in Nashville.  If anyone has any good recommendations, please let me know.  Oleta had a vet in Nashville that we loved and appreciated, but I would be interested in looking into others.  Crazy, but I do need to start thinking about getting settled in at home.  Only a week left of training now!

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 6|The Afternoon Mystery Revealed

Saturday morning brought the first obedience session with some level of distraction.  Our class supervisor tried to catch Padawan’s attention by bouncing a tennis ball all around us while we concentrated on our commands.  She did look once or twice, but got refocused quickly.  Everything this dog does is quick.  She is like a jack-in-the-box when she sits up during obedience.  She takes off like a rocket when she is working.  She spins around and throws herself to the ground in seconds when I tell her “close” (which is the command to lay between my feet under a chair).  She does everything enthusiastically and virtually nothing halfway (hahaha, other than when she doesn’t want to lay down, that is, and remains for a minute or more in the downward dog position in order to trick me into thinking she’s all the way down).

We had a route in White Plains in the morning.  It started out as a relaxed Saturday morning route, with little traffic and fewer pedestrians, but we soon ran into several challenges.  The first was the construction.  A fence blocked off an entire section of the sidewalk, so Padawan had to stop and show me the fence before we could go around to the curb.  She did so, but when we arrived at the curb there was a loud engine being used in the construction zone and I could not hear a thing in order to make the decision to cross the street.  My trainer helped me so that we wouldn’t have to stand there all morning.  Padawan didn’t seem bothered by the noise.  A block or two down, Padawan approached the curb and veered a little to the right.  I was not sure we had approached it correctly until my trainer informed me that there were two pigeons standing right where she would normally have stopped at the curb.  She had treated them as an obstacle so as not to get in trouble for going after pigeons.  She is too cute!!!

Evidently, she did not have the same reservations a block or two on from that when she glimpsed a pair of dogs ahead of us.  Her pace increased to warp speed.  Needless to say that when the next curb arrived, we both ended up with our feet in the street, rather than the sidewalk, by the time we managed to stop for the curb.  We walked back several paces and approached the curb again with a steady command, and she fixed her mistake.  Later though, Padawan was in a sit waiting for a fellow classmate to go on ahead of us (we tend to catch up with people) when a pigeon landed about a foot away.  She thought it was great fun to watch him, but didn’t move a muscle to chase or lunge at him.  Good girl!  I was also very pleased with her reaction to a complicated traffic situation at one crossing.  There was a bus at a bus stop, and a mail truck was pulled up behind it waiting to make a delivery.  That placed it right to the left of us as we approached the far curb on the crosswalk.  With that on our left and turning cars on our right, it got a bit narrow and Padawan ran for it.  I did not treat her for it since she missed the curb, but honestly I was just glad she got us out of there.  My trainer and I agreed that it was a fairly appropriate response given everything going on.  I love working this dog.

In the afternoon, our mystery work was practice with the clicker/targeting as well as a supervised grooming session.  A clicker is a small plastic box with a button that makes a loud popping sound when pressed.  The dogs have learned to associate the sound with food.  It is used as a marker during training to indicate to the dog that, at the moment of the click, they were demonstrating a desired behavior and will receive a food reward.  Targeting is teaching a dog to recognize and target a certain thing according to it’s name.  For example, Padawan has already learned generic targets like curbs, doors, and steps.  If they are in the general vicinity, she can recognize a door and take me to it when I say, “too the door”.  If taught, she can also target particular doors and other objects.  Yesterday we worked on my dorm room door specifically.  I placed my fist on the door and told Padawan “touch”, which prompts her to bop my fist with her nose.  This helps her to understand that I want her to target the thing under my fist.  When she response to the touch command, I click and feed.  After a few repetitions, I added in the word “door”, and then took away the touch command all together and only said, “door”, still clicking and feeding when she bopped my fist.  After a few times doing that, I backed up from the door, picked up the harness handle, and told her, “too the door”.  We continued like that several times over,backing up further and further first in one direction and then in another, until it was pretty clear she knew exactly what I wanted from her.  I have to remember to slow her down a bit with the “steady” command, because we get going so quickly it becomes difficult for her to turn and target with so much momentum.  She LOVES targeting and I can’t wait to see her show me her awesome skills with other things as well.

Celebrating Five Years

With the cool evening air wafting in through the screen door, along with golden birdsong and the smoke of summer fires, I am swept into years past, happy childhood years, filled with summer evenings of s’mores and sparklers. Today has been a day of reflecting on memories. That’s because today marks 15 states, 4 countries, 5 languages, five years, and countless memories since Oleta, my beautiful guide dog, and I became a team.
Contrary to many people’s assumptions, I don’t NEED a guide dog to travel independently. I can (and do upon occasion) use a white cane to travel just as effectively. I don’t NEED a guide dog to pursue my professional goals. I know lots of blind professionals who are strictly white cane users. I chose to work with a guide dog because I loved dogs, I imagined working a guide dog to be infinitely more pleasurable than using a cane, and it was, after all, my dream to have a guide dog from the age of eight.
Those reasons still stand. Working a guide dog is, in my opinion, infinitely more pleasurable than using a cane. A guide dog allows one to walk much more fluidly and quickly without having to stop every 20 feet to unstick one’s stubborn cane from the side walk, or the grass, or some unidentifiable metal thing in the middle of the path, or, heaven forbid, someone’s legs, or to recover from getting one’s cane stuck in one of these various and sundry obstacles, not stopping fast enough, and promptly being rewarded with a sharp jab to the stomach. Yep, don’t miss those days. Having a guide dog also means that I didn’t get hit by that one insane bus driver who suddenly decided to drive on the side walk right where I was standing, it’s a heck of a lot easier to find doors, stairs, curbs, escalators (Oleta LOVES escalators), benches, etc, and sometimes even one of my best friends. Yes, these, among others, are all awesome benefits of having a guide dog, but now a days, the reason I work a guide dog is because of Oleta.
Oleta, who loves unconditionally as easily as she licks, who takes work breaks to wriggle on her back in the grass and the snow and the sand just for the pure joy of it, who actually whines when she sees children on playgrounds because she wants to play with them, who lives out the meaning of her name “Little one with wings” every time we find ourselves flying alone along some sidewalk or other.
Dear Oleta, I love how you love life, and I love living life with you. Happy five years of memories made! I look forward to many more together.

6 Ways PETA Got It Wrong About Guide Dogs

The following is an actual quote from PETA’s one-time VP from an article in LA Unleashed…

“There will never be a perfect world, but in the world we’re in now, we support some working dog situations and decry others.  Hearing dog programs that pull dogs from animal shelters and ensure that they are in safe and loving homes have our stamp of approval; they live with the family for their entire life, they learn interesting things, enjoy life, and love helping.  On the other hand, we oppose most seeing-eye-dog programs because the dogs are bred as if there are no equally intelligent dogs literally dying for homes in shelters, they are kept in harnesses almost 24/7, people are prohibited from petting or playing with them and they cannot romp and run and interact with other dogs; and their lives are repeatedly disrupted (they are trained for months in one home and bond, then sent to a second, and after years of bonding with the person they have “served,” they are whisked away again because they are old and no longer “useful”). We have a member who is blind who actually moved states to avoid “returning” her beloved dog. We feel that the human community should do more to support blind people, and give dogs a break.  A deaf person can see if a dog has a medical issue such as blood in her urine, a blind person living alone cannot, and so on.”

As a real live, everyday guide dog user, I can testify that:

  • 1. Hearing dog work is VERY, VERY different from guide work. In general, it is a much less stressful job to do. Guide dog work requires a confident, sound dog that can work through any number of unpredictable and potentially dangerous situations in any number of environments. From working through large crowds in stores or train platforms, to intelligent disobedience (refusing to obey a command when it might put the team in danger, AKA, blind person tells dog to go forward when there is a car coming), to riding cars, buses, trains, and planes without incident, to staying cool in emergency situations (AKA fire alarms, hurricanes, tornadoes, I mention those three because Oleta and I have experienced all three together), to resisting the temptation to chase squirrels, pigeons, or food while in harness, not any dog can deal with that sort of stress, and no one wants to force a dog who is easily frightened and unhappy in a position that he does not want to be in, especially when that places the life of the blind person he is paired to in danger as well. Guide dog puppies are bred specifically for this work, spend their entire puppyhood preparing for it through socialization and positive experiences, and those who pass the test and are partnered as guides are in the absolute happiest place they could be. As much as all of us would like to be adopting dogs out of shelters to use as guides, most shelter dogs are not bred or conditioned to handle such high demands of their energy, intelligence, resilience, and skill, and would not be happy or successful in harness.
  • 2. Guide dogs are NOT in harness 24 hours a day!!! Aleta is in harness when we are on route, but she is off harness full time while at home, and many times I remove her harness in class, studying at the library, practicing in the practice rooms, etc. While in harness, she is not allowed to associate with other people or dogs, but she is absolutely allowed to associate with me, and I give her plenty of love and interaction. When off harness, Oleta gets tons of attention from me, my roommate, my family, friends, and classmates… many say they couldn’t imagine a more well-loved dog.
  • 3. When off harness, Oleta gets tuns of time to run and play by herself, with humans, and when we can arrange it, with other dogs too. She loves to play with another guide dog on campus, and they get along great. She has all sorts of toys, but her favorite thing to do is sprint laps in our dorm hallway. I bet most pet dogs don’t get as much room to run in the house as she does in our dorm.
  • 4. When Oleta makes the decision to retire (and it is the dog’s decision), she will not be “whisked away because she is too old and no longer useful”. The dog will let you know when they need to retire, through any number of factors, and when that day comes, the handler has the choice to keep the dog as a pet, give them to a trusted family member or friend to be cared for in their retirement, return them to their puppy raiser, or get help from the agency to adopt them out to a loving home. My first choice would absolutely be to keep Oleta forever, but it might not be possible or in her best interest to do so based on my living situation and schedule. After a guide dog retires, they are no longer considered service animals, and public entities are no longer required to accommodate them. If I were living in a dorm or an apartment building that did not allow pets, Oleta could not stay with me in her retirement. It breaks my heart to think about, but in that case Oleta will spend her days of retirement with my family, whom she is familiar with and would be comfortable living with. My third choice would be her puppy raiser, whom she would also remember. Whatever happens, Guiding Eyes will support me in whatever decision I make. It would take serious accusations of abuse or breach of contract for Guiding Eyes to take Oleta from me, especially since the client can sign for ownership of the dog after a number of months of ownership. Guide dog schools do not take dogs away from clients willy nilly without their permission.
  • 5. Humans cannot replace the work that guide dogs do every day. The entire point of a guide dog is to provide greater independence to we blindies without human assistance, because no, I do not want to be led around by some human guide. It would be demeaning and far beyond inconvenient, not to mention unnecessary. I can get around perfectly fine without either human or dog using my cane. I would much prefer a cane to a human guide, but I would much prefer a dog to a cane.
  • 6. Blind people are extremely in tune with their guide’s bodies and can detect a health issue just as easily, sometimes more accurately, as a sighted person. It is possible that we may miss some visual symptoms, which is why we take preemptive measures to keep our guides healthy through good nutrition, exercise, teeth brushing, ear cleaning, preemptive medications/vaccines, etc, and by making regular visits to our vet. Oleta has had one serious health issue in the nearly five years we have been together, and I recognized it before my sighted roommate. Sure, I can’t see, but I know my dog, and I know when she’s sick.
  • Even more than that, my relationship with Oleta is one that goes far beyond that of person and pet. We have weathered storms and traffic stops and sophomore slump together, attended thousands of lessons and lectures, traveled nationally and internationally, gone to disney World and Busch Gardens and Hershey Park, participated in two graduations, spent nearly every day and night of these last four and a half years watching and wishing and wandering together. When Oleta isn’t at my side, I feel two dimensional, like part of me is missing, and it’s true, because Oleta is part of me.
    I think PETA’s arguments here PETAred (hahaha, get it?) out a long time ago, but I thought we might as well tackle the issue, just in case. Consider yourself educated.