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

 

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 4|A Day of Firsts

Thursday morning I got to do obedience with a real dog!  And it was great.  Padawan did wonderfully.  She was remarkably responsive and didn’t make any mistakes. Granted, it is a low distraction environment right now and we are working individually with instructors at this point, but it’s still been less than 24 hours.  SHe’s a pro.

Healing up to breakfast was a tad bit challenging, because she was so excited and she got up quite a lot during the meal, but in the van and at lunch she laid quite positively still. We had our first walk around 10 this morning. Padawan was on it. She found every curb perfectly and navigated around people and carts and cars flawlessly. We even had a mini traffic check. We were crossing one street when a car turned in front of us. She slowed to allow it to pass then sped up, got to the curb, and all was well. She started out a bit quick even for me, but we ran it off and got a little bit slower as the morning went on.

On our second route, Padawan’s pace was perfect. She found every curb and the only thing I could fault her for was stepping into the street a bit too early.  She did slow to look at a pigeon at one point, but looked back at me quickly and kept working just fine. There was another car that pulled in front of us at an active driveway.  She stopped for it, then waited for me to listen and give the command to continue.

I really was not expecting to have such smooth routes today.  I am sure we will run into challenges, but when my trainer asked if I had any questions at the end of our second route, all I could think of was, “where are her flaws?”.  Apparently she has them… but all I can see so far is that we need to work a bit on staying and waiting. She is go go go all the time, and I love it, but sometimes we do have to stand still for a little while, unfortunately.

In the afternoon, I attached Padawan to her tie down so that I could lay down for a few minutes between lecture and dinner.  Padawan saw me lay on my bed and immediately leapt to join me, only to find that the tie down was a little too short.  So, she settled for standing with her front paws on my bed, bouncing at me and licking me. My heart melted.  I wasn’t expecting her to want to be with me that badly… so I got up and sank to the floor with her.  She wiggled and jumped to put her paws on my shoulders.  I got face kisses, and she rolled and wriggled herself around until finally coming to a rest draped over me with her bum on one of my legs and her head on the other.   We cuddled like that until we heard the announcement to go to dinner, and even then I took my time getting up.  It was too sweet!

Later that evening I got to play with Padawan for the first time.  We went with our instructor into Alumni Hall and I got to sift through a crate of various toys to see what she might like.  The bone wasn’t of interest to her, but she ran joyfully after the tennis ball and played soccer with a big bouncy frog that did not really fit in her mouth.  It was absolutely adorable.  She makes me laugh.

I also heard Padawan’s bark for the first time.  She was laying comfortably still beside me in the student living room as I worked on blogs.  Padawan saw/heard a fellow classmate and her dog in the hallway and suddenly leapt up with a loud “woof woof woof!”.  It scared me at first because I was so focussed and she had been so calm, but she was, I think, just excited to see her friend and wanted to play.  With a firm “quiet” and “down” command she went easily back to resting, and I got back to work.

Friday (Friday already?) we have the same routes in White Plains and a lecture on grooming.  We’ll check in with you then.

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.

A Second Journey: Why I’m Missing my Little One with Wings, Part I

If you thought Friday was a fiasco, it was nothing compared to Tuesday.  The day dawned with the thrilling hope that I would be leaving for Scotland the following day.  I spent the morning reading and starting to touch up my previous week’s packing job.  After a long conversation with my big sister in the afternoon, I got an email from US Airways saying there was a problem with my service dog traveling with me to Scotland.  The email didn’t shock me exactly; Oleta and I have experienced plenty situations in which there was misunderstanding or down right ignorance where our partnership is concerned, and certainly the legalities that surround guide and service animals.  If you are not aware, in the United States, guide dogs are legally protected to enter any public area with their handler, including restaurants, stores, schools, museums, hospitals, public transportation, etc etc.  Refusal to allow a guide dog team into any such area is considered a federal offense.  You can read more about that here.

http://nagdu.org/laws/usa/usa.html

Keep that in mind as we move forward.

I realized I had also missed a call from US Airways, and found a voice mail that said basically the same thing as the email.  Resigned, but only a tad worried, I called the US Airways number and talked to a customer service agent.  They clearly were not very educated on the topic, as they began spouting things about vaccines, blood tests, and quarantine.  I pointed out that I knew perfectly well what the regulations were regarding guide dogs entering the UK, that I had done this twice before, and that I had the necessary paperwork.  Was there some other problem?  I thought about hanging up right there, but I was afraid there was some legitimate issue that I would need to sort out before our departure tomorrow.  If I wrote them off now, it’s possible I’d arrive at the airport Wednesday evening and they would not allow us to travel.  As far as I remember, the customer service agent then proceeded to read something about how pets had to enter the UK through London Heathrow.  I made it clear that she is NOT a pet, and those regulations, if they are directed toward pets, should not apply to her.  They then claimed that the policy specifically says that service dogs also have to comply with this directive.

This was strange.  Everything I had read on the UK and Scottish government websites had seemed to say that guide dogs were exempt from traveling on prior approved routes.  What is more, I flew US Airways through Edinburgh last year without an issue.  This left several possibilities:

1. The customer service agent was woefully ignorant and this was a case of discrimination/misunderstanding.

2. The customer service agent was correct and this was a legitimate UK or EU law that we could do nothing about.

3. The customer service agent was correct and this was a discriminatory US Airways policy that probably should be illegal under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

I was fairly sure that number two could not be true, considering three factors:

A. I traveled through Edinburgh May of 2014 with Oleta with no problem whatsoever.

B. I remembered reading headlines several years ago about the UK putting through legislation to allow guide dogs on all airlines and through all airports.  I wasn’t sure that legislation applied to international travel, but if it did, it seemed unlikely that they would have changed those laws so soon after.

C. All of the UK/Scottish websites that I had read seemed to indicate the opposite.

Number 1, on the other hand, seemed highly plausible, so I tackled that one first by asking to speak with a manager.

She was even more unhelpful, if that was possible.  She merely emphasized her underling’s claims, complete with the clear lack of understanding about the UK pet travel scheme and the specifics on legal guide dog protection.  In response to my inquiries about why I could travel through Edinburgh last year, she said that their policy changed in October of 2014.  When I asked whose policy, she claimed that it was a change initiated by the EU.  Back to square one.  If she was right, that meant number 2 could still be a thing.

She became irate when I told her I thought she was mistaken and asked to speak with another manager.

“This is not a matter of my competence in my job, Ma’am.” She insisted angrily, “This is a matter of you refusing to understand what I am telling you because you don’t want to hear it.  If you are not going to listen to what I am saying then we might as well end this call right now.”

Okay, I thought, so you’ve got an attitude.  That’s exactly why I need to speak to someone else.  Finally, she transferred my call and I was able to converse with a slightly more rational human being in Phoenix, AZ.

I didn’t get much further with him, except to discover that it was a US Airways policy, not an EU regulation.  Still, he said I would have to fly through London Heathrow and offered to change my flights.  I told him I would not pay for a flight change, as the information regarding my guide dog had been on my reservations since May 1st, and we had heard nothing of this until the day before my departure.  He said it wouldn’t be fair for me to have to pay “out of pocket”, which sounded unconvincing, so I said I’d call back after I sorted some things out.  A bit of online research on the legalities of all this, a few emails to the department of agriculture in Scotland and England, three or four more phone calls, a stern conversation with one of the customer service agents about the ADA and the possibility of a law suit, and a FREE flight change later, I hung up under the impression that I would be able to travel to Scotland (via London) with Oleta the next evening.  How wrong I was.