First Exciting Announcement — Opportunity Unleashed is Joining Youtube!

I’m glad to welcome y’all to my youtube channel!  I have been wanting to start this channel for YEARS, and never felt confident enough to do it, but now is the time!  Watch my welcome video

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Thank you all, for supporting me here at Opportunity Unleashed.  I am so thrilled to be expanding into this new area of the world wide web, and I’m looking forward to hearing your feedback!  If you have ideas for future videos, questions about blindness, guide dogs, or music-related requests, please comment or shoot me a message.  If you have been a reader here at OpportunityUnleashed.com, please become a viewer, too, and

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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)

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 10|Pretzels!

Wednesday it was rainy and wet the entire day. We were scheduled to go into white plains, but no one wanted to work outdoors while it was pouring, so we stayed inside.  The trainers set up a makeshift obstacle course in the hallways, then worked on targeting and revolving doors, followed by a mall route in the afternoon.

There isn’t much to say about the obstacle course as it went flawlessly for Prim and I.  In targeting, the class split up into separate groups. Some worked on teaching their dogs to show them the elevator buttons, some worked on landmarking the hall intersection, and others (such as myself) worked on finding chairs.  Prim was, of course, brilliant with it as she has been every time we have

with targeting since the very beginning.  I am looking so forward to the day that she can take me to an empty chair in a meeting or on a train. Oleta got to that point but it took a little while and a lot of practice.  First they have to generalize what a chair means in different situations.  Chairs can look different depending on where you are.  Some are in a line against a wall, as in a waiting room or lobby area.  Some are pushed up against a table, as in a restaurant.  Some are wooden, some are soft, some have arms, some do not.  Once the dog gets an idea of what I mean by a chair, learning that I want an empty one is another layer of the process.

After finishing with our chair activity some of us learned how to go through a revolving door with our dogs. Guiding Eyes has a revolving door on campus so it was easy to practice.  I was a little nervous to do this, as there was one occasion in high school when Oleta and I were forced by a crowd unknowingly into a quickly moving revolving door, and Oleta came very near serious injury.  It was very scary, so I tend to avoid revolving doors at all costs, but if I didn’t do the training here Guiding Eyes asks that we refrain from using them in the future, so I opted to complete the training, just in case it proves unavoidable at some point.  She did fine and did not get her tail stuck in the door as I had feared.  She even helped to push the door along as we went with her nose.  Haha, thanks Primlet!

In the mall we worked on escalators, elevators, and suggested turns, but mostly the “steady” command.  As we have been discovering, we cannot safely travel at our normal pace indoors.  It was definitely a challenge for the both of us.  It doesn’t help Prim that I don’t really want to walk slower either, but I know we have to, so I have to be the responsible party and show her what is acceptable pace-wise in that situation.  We will get there, but I’m definitely anticipating having to work a lot on this when we get home.  Honestly I don’t think I could ask for a better problem to have.

At the end of our route, I slyly persuaded one of my instructors, who had finished with her students, to snag me a pretzel and a strawberry lemonade from the Auntie-Anne’s downstairs before we left.  My classmates really appreciated me, I know, because they got some pretzels out of it too.  No no, don’t thank me… really, thank our instructor, dear classmates.

Seriously though… she’s awesome.  All of our instructors are awesome.  They have great senses of humor, are crazy about dogs, love people, are willing to snag pretzels for students at the risk of possibly getting in trouble later, and generally are a joy to work with.  Just another reason to love Guiding Eyes.

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 9|Chocolate

Tuesday we worked some different routes in White Plains. The first one we worked with our normal instructor to and from Dunkin’ Donuts. Prim made a clearance error around a trashcan, but in all fairness, it was a super tough situation. There was a woman coming at us with a baby carriage walking at a good clip, and at the same time there was a trash can on our left, part of which stuck out above Prim’s level, so although she could get around herself and she thought she had me cleared, I wasn’t quite.  The funny part was the trash can was on wheels, so of course it started rolling away when I ran into it and my trainer had to grab it and get it to stay still again.  She had to repeat the process several times, as it would not stay still!  Oh the strange things that happen out on route!

Prim did really well getting through a non-linear area with a fountain and some trees, and slowing down for the door into Dunkin which wasn’t all the way open.  Rather than just trying to run us through the small opening, she stopped to show it to me so that we could squeeze through together.  At the counter, I used the “touch” command to position her in front of me and against the counter so that she was out of the way.  I got a chocolate donut, then we scampered off back to White Plains to consume the deliciousness.  As a side note, my classmates tell me I’m not allowed to have chocolate, because it has caffeine, and sugar… but I don’t think my trainer was aware of that rule so I got away with it! *Insert evil laugh here* Chocolate chocolate chocolate!

🙂

During our route in the afternoon, we worked with a different trainer who was filling in for our class supervisor that day.  She is so chatty and funny. She described Prim’s body language as we worked. Her ears were pinned a little bit back, tail in the middle and out, she said she looked very relaxed and confident, and a bit like an arrow.  We walk fast enough to be one, she said.  Haha.

Prim full on ran me into a pedestrian, so that was awkward.  We were coming up from a street crossing and, from what our trainer said, she had seen the pedestrian, thought she was going one way, but turned out she went another and we collided.  We made our way to a bus shelter and used the clicker to teach her to target it with the word “bus”.  She had it down in no time.  I seriously can’t wait to get this dog home and start learning targets around our home environment.  She is going to be fabulous.

Prim was right on with curbs this time.  She is a quick learner, and we have ended up with our feet in the street far less frequently in recent trips.  Our guest trainer said we looked great—much more like we were in the third week of class than in the beginning of the second.  That’s very exciting to hear!

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 3 Part 2|Our First Afternoon

This is part 2 of my entry about Dog Day, that is, the day I got to meet my new guide dog.  You can find the first post here.

We went out for a brief walk on the residential street near campus after lunch.  Padawan threw herself into the harness and guided with incredible confidence and ease.  This particular street does not have sidewalks, and while my trainer said I did not have to worry about shore lining the left side of the road, Padawan knew exactly what she was doing and did it naturally anyway.  On our return to the building, she slowed and stopped to show me a parked car on the side of the road.  When I gave the “forward” command, she went smoothly around it and returned to the shoreline on the left.  Beautiful work!

Back in our room, she conked out for about 10 minutes so I got some good petting time in, but her energy was quickly replenished and she was soon up whining at the door again.  I kept petting, talking, and singing as I had earlier, until we made it to feed, water, and park time and afternoon lecture.  Lecture was surprisingly uneventful.  There was some barking from another dog, and Padawan did try to belly crawl and fraternize with her neighbors a few times, but she is a pro at the “close” command.  “Close” means the dog must swing their rear end around and tuck themselves between your feet under a chair.  I have never seen a dog perform that command with such drama and enthusiasm.  She is fabulous.

Dinner was another struggle to stay settled, but there was definite progress from lunch.  I will say eating ribs on the first day with your new guide dog is a bit challenging, but Padawan enjoyed licking my fingers afterword, even after I had used a napkin to clean up.  Looks like she likes barbecue.  She’s a Nashville girl for sure…

I hung out with a few of my classmates after dinner in the lobby, but Padawan was very upset by the in and out presence of her trainers and eventually threw herself on the ground in a very loud temper tantrum, so we called it a night early.  Poor babe.  As time goes on and our bond begins to solidify, things will get better.

We didn’t snuggle that morning, but later that evening, it finally happened!  After some more pacing and carrying on, she plopped herself close beside me and nuzzled into my leg.  I didn’t move for a long, long time.  It was a precious hour for the both of us, I think.

Thursday we will have our first two official routes in White Plains.  After a day of working with this dog, I can easily say I adore her.  Her spunk and pizazz are irresistible, and her brilliance and motivation are impossible to miss.  I am already imagining life in down town Nashville with her at my side.  We will take Nashville by storm, no doubt about it.  Still, we have a long road of training and bonding ahead.  We should get a better idea of what that process might be like tomorrow on our walks in town.  Until then…