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 Little Moments | 30 Days of Gratitude, Day 3

After a day of resume building, job applications, and housework, it was a relief to take a few minutes to lay down with my guide dog snuggled next to me and read a book for a little while.  It wasn’t anything spectacular, and I felt a little guilty for that.  I was choosing this over other things I could be doing… other, presumably more useful things, like more job applications.

I’m realizing, though, that along with the choice to work, I have the choice to rest.  Not everyone has that choice right now… single mothers working to feed and raise their children, members of the military in combat, refugees fleeing from war torn regions, persecuted Christians seeking asylum from inhospitable governments, families recovering from hurricanes and earthquakes and mass shootings, the list goes on.

I am unemployed.  I have a great deal of work to do, and, in my mind, a minuscule amount of time to dedicate to something as trivial as rest, but in a world populated with big change, big disasters, and big miracles, today I am thankful for little moments, and a little bit of chill.

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 11|Pizza

To continue the theme of food in titles this week…

Thursday was our country-travel/picture day.  Country travel is the term we use to refer to traveling on roads without sidewalks.  Our dogs are trained to walk on the left side of the road, but with no specific borderline on the other side it is easy to accidentally drift into the middle of the road from time to time.  So, we use a technique called “shore-lining”, which means my dog does her best to keep the curb line directly on our left, and every once in a while (or when I hear a car coming) I check our distance from the curb or grass line by telling her “Wait. Left, to the curb.”  When we arrive at the curb, whether that be one step later or five, she gets an enthusiastic “yes” and a treat.

Prim did fabulously.  There were no distractions, and most times when I asked her to go to the curb, we were right on top of it.  She showed me a big truck in our way at one point and we went around it then returned to the shoreline.  She was pulling like crazy, so we did have to work on steady some, because my arm was hurting haha.  Again, a problem I am okay with having.

In the afternoon, Prim and I got “gussied up”, as one of my instructors put it, for our ID and class pictures.  The class picture was interesting, with 13 humans and their 13 dogs as well as six instructors attempted to get in the frame and get settled.

“Say pizza!” our photographer told us… so we all called out “pizza!” at random intervals while he snapped photo after photo.  I found the whole thing very entertaining.  After that, we trooped into the hallway to wait for our individual pictures with our dogs.  I was second to go, so it wasn’t long before Prim and I got to hop onto the table together and pose for our photo op.  Prim sat very primly and looked right at the camera.  She is super photogenic.  I think it came out well.

To close out our day of training, we had a traffic check activity followed by lecture.  For the traffic check activity, the trainers set up a narrow isle that could only fit one guide dog team at a time.  At one end was the opening entrance, and at the other a door, which served as motivation for the dogs to continue down the shoot.  The first time we went down, we simply told our dogs forward, arrived at the door, and treated our dogs.  When we returned to the entrance, we instructed our dogs to walk forward into the shoot, and one of the trainers pushed a cart directly at us.  The only safe response in that situation is for the dog to back up to a safe distance, wait for the cart to clear away, and then continue down the isle way.  Prim did so beautifully.  The third time we walked through, a trainer drove the cart in front of us horizontally.  In that case, the dog must stop, wait for the cart to pass, and then continue to the door.  Again, Prim executed it perfectly.  Given this activity and several real life situations where we have had traffic checks, I feel very safe with Prim in traffic, and in grocery stores… which is good, because drivers of both cars and carts are crazy in Nashville.  You can handle’m Prim!

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 8|A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White Plains Building

There are days I just have to step back and marvel at the incredible phenomenon that is the guide dog team.  Dogs don’t naturally walk in straight lines.  They don’t naturally refuse to chase other animals or deny themselves food lying on the ground.  Most dogs don’t want to spend their days forging a path through pedestrians on crowded sidewalks, locating curbs, and playing in traffic… and yet these dogs do.  They love their job, and most, if not all guide dogs, seem to realize at one point or another that they aren’t just doing this for the food reward.  These are the sort of dogs that Guiding Eyes breeds, raises, and trains, and I feel so blessed to be able to experience life with now two of them.

Prim had a number of things thrown at her today.  It is only our sixth day together and we had two major traffic checks, plus a skateboard check (yep, skateboard. You read that correctly), escalators, crowded, narrow sidewalks, indoor work, and major distractions in the dog food isle at CVS.  That “major distraction” took the form of my class supervisor (who is also Oleta’s trainer and my instructor from 2011) tempting Prim with all sorts of very appealing squeaky toys while we did puppy push ups (sit, down, sit, down, sit, down, sit).  It was pretty hard not to look, and she definitely did struggle to listen to a couple of my commands, but we got through it well enough.  Honestly… can you imagine trying to concentrate while people danced around you with Chic-Fil-A and gift cards for pedicures and the latest technology gizmos, or whatever tempting treat might strike your fancy, and be expected to keep working at the same high performance without ever lunging for one of those waffle fries or gift cards or iPhones?  Mm… Chic-Fil-A… I discovered today that Chic-Fil-A doesn’t exist in this area, bless their hearts.  Anyway, what was I talking about?

Prim handled it all very well.  I was impressed with the way she dealt with the traffic checks.  One was on the left side of the street with a legal right turner.  She saw it coming ahead of time and stopped about ten feet away from the car.  The second was a car turning very illegally on the wrong side of the road.  That was slightly more startling to me as it was completely unexpected, but Prim just came to an abrupt halt, let the car pass, and continued to the curb.  It didn’t seem to throw her at all.  She got a cookie and lots of praise upon reaching the sidewalk.  She did her job very well.

Prim loves escalators.  I am sure that her trainers used a great deal of positive reenforcement with them, as they can be scary for some dogs at first, but I think Prim also just likes the ride.  She did very well pulling me to the edge of the metal plate and showing me exactly where the escalator started.  She is brilliant with targets.  When she hears the name of a familiar target (like the steps in this case) and recognizes it, she is there and fast, and she doesn’t stop pulling until we are all the way on top of it.  Since I have practically no vision, this is extremely helpful for me, because she makes it very clear where whatever I am looking for is, whether it be the curb, the escalator, the door, etc.

We are still working on slowing down a tad in certain situations.  For example, when we entered the CVS in the afternoon, we were moving so quickly the automatic doors didn’t quite have a chance to open all the way, so I got clipped by the still slightly closed sliding door.  We also had to slow in the isles so as not to knock any displays or innocent bystanders to the floor.  On our way back from CVS, we had a slight sniffing distraction with some trash cans (which, in her defense, did smell very strongly!), but as my instructor observed, Prim seems very responsive to my voice and a “Prim, leave it” was all she needed to get going again.

Shortly after that we crossed a street, made a right, and then I felt Prim angle over to the left a bit toward a building.  She approached the wall of the building, then made a quick right and continued along the block.  I wasn’t sure what had happened, until my instructor came up from behind to inform me that Prim had seen herself in a glass wall.  Apparently, Prim got all puffy and upset like, “who’s that over there?!”, until she realized it was her own reflection, got embarrassed, and quick changed her direction like, that didn’t just happen.  We laughed all the way back to the White Plains building.  There are days you have to marvel at the incredible phenomenon that is the guide dog team, and then there are days you just have to laugh… and with Prim, that’s every day.  This dog cracks me up.