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

 

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.