A Safety-Conscious Canine

A little story I wrote for a blog I contributed to. The blog is no longer running so I decided to republish it here. Enjoy.

Prim has consistently been rather stubborn about going to church. When I asked my trainer about it, she suggested that perhaps Prim simply wasn’t religious. I laughed at that, but it wasn’t a sufficient explanation, especially when I realized that Prim was somewhat unwilling to walk the route from church, as well as to church. Today I figured out why. 

Our walk to church includes traversing several sets of steps, the top level of a parking garage, and a long, side-walkless driveway, one that is consistently populated by church-goers’ vehicles leaving and entering our parking lot. Because there is no sidewalk, we are forced to stick as close as we can to the edge of the road. Prim is trained to do this. It’s a technique called “shore-lining”, but she is still not satisfied. She often stops in the parking lot or veers to the grass when she sees an idoling car, as I think she recognizes it as a threat. Well, one day on our way out of church, Prim decided to take matters into her own paws. Despite my direction to walk straight, across the parking lot and along the driveway, Prim insisted upon turning left. Curious, I trusted her and followed.

“Let’s go home.” 

I said, hopefully, even though I didn’t actually know whether we could get back to our appartment this way. She led me along a brief strip of parkinglot, then pulled me strongly to the right to step onto a sidewalk. I couldn’t help but laugh. We stuck to the sidewalk, made a right, then walked another good distance, until Prim pulled right again and I recognized the slant of our leasing office parking lot beneath my feet, and a minute later reached out to feel the gate that would take us into our complex. 

We had never walked that route before, but somehow Prim knew we could get home that way, and knew it was safer with side walks. She won’t let us walk any other way now. I love my safety conscious canine.

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.