Guide Dogs For All? Maybe Not.

Ask any guide dog user, and just about all of them will be happy to wax poetic about how much they love having a guide dog. They’re willing to acknowledge that it’s hard work, and that it can be too frustrating for words, but it’s all worth it in the end, they’ll say. Their reactions are much the same as those of many parents: having children is stressful and life-changing, but it’s always, unquestionably worth it.
So, because we only ever seem to hear from those who are living the guide dog dream (or those, like me, who choose to embrace the cane and nothing else), there’s a third group remaining mostly silent. This group includes two types of people. The first type consists of people who like guide dog travel in general but had a very negative experience with a particular dog. The other type consists of those who drank the Kool-Aid, believed that having a guide dog is for absolutely everyone, and learned otherwise. They learned the hard way, and while they may have adored their dogs and may not be completely closed to trying again in future, they have come away feeling disillusioned, alienated and, in some cases, inadequate. Was it some failing of theirs that led to the collapse of their dream? Could they have done more? Been better? Tried harder?
I want to tell the stories of just a few members of this badly-misunderstood group. I want to extend their experiences beyond the scope of family and friends, so that they can be heard alongside the overwhelming joy from guide dog users everywhere. I don’t seek to take anything away from happy guide dog users, but I do want to lift the voices of people whose stories have, I believe, been neglected for far too long.
Three brave souls have come forward to speak candidly about how it felt to take the leap, fall short, and realize they made a mistake. Regret may not plague them, but they definitely have a very different outlook from those who have found universal success and contentment living with a guide dog. My hope is that other people with disabilities will read this and be encouraged. Having a service dog may be for many people, but it’s not for everyone, and that’s okay.
Note: These are not horror stories. They are tales of real people who underwent real suffering. Please respect that.

Toeing the Party Line: Alicia’s Story

Alicia grew up with a cane in her hand, incorporating it seamlessly into her travel routine, and benefiting from comprehensive mobility training. Comfortable as she was with her cane, she thought as so many people do: true independence could only be found through a guide dog.
Believing that guide dogs were the only sensible option for independent blind people, Alicia never analyzed her decision to get a service dog. It was so deeply-engrained that no other choice seemed viable, let alone wise. It was this belief, perhaps, that made her particular experience so devastating.
So, once she completed high school, she was matched with Dusty, a yellow lab with whom she bonded immediately.
Much as she enjoyed the smoothness and grace of dog travel, Alicia soon ran into trouble.

I started dealing with a struggle none of my other classmates seemed to be having. I found myself missing the tactile feedback that came with using my cane. I didn’t like the method of having to use my feet to search for the things I could have, in my opinion, found much more easily with my cane. When I brought this up to my trainers, they told me it was just part of the transition everyone went through.

Reassured, Alicia took Dusty home, and embarked on the stressful journey that is college. Predictably, however, the emotional and mental exhaustion brought on by so many life changes affected her partnership with Dusty. She began leaving him at home here and there, relishing the freedom and confidence she felt only when holding a cane. She found caring for him burdensome, though she loved him dearly and refused to neglect him for any reason. She even began to miss the low-maintenance nature of cane travel.

I dearly missed being able to come back from a long day of classes and other activities, put my cane in the corner, and rest like I did in high school.

Finally, Alicia had to accept that she and her dog were both desperately unhappy, and even though the decision broke her heart, she surrendered Dusty. She had no way of knowing what would happen to him, where he’d go, or to whom he’d be assigned, but she knew that she’d made the right decision, if not the easy one.

I don’t hear many stories like mine. In fact, I’m trying to remember if I ever have heard any other stories similar to mine. … A small percentage of the time, I wonder what was wrong with me as a blind person that it seems to work for everyone else, but didn’t work for me. However, most of the time, I realize that a dog is not the right choice for everyone, and I’m simply one of those.

Welcome to the Spotlight: Holly’s Story

Holly, unlike Alicia, did not consider a cane to be an extension of herself. Receiving regular mobility lessons as a child did introduce her to the art of cane travel, but not until her mid teens did she understand that she should probably start using one. Always comfortable and fearless in her own neighbourhood, Holly and her family saw no need for her to rely on a cane, and it was not until she grew too independent to tolerate sighted guide that she chose to use one full-time.
Struggling to find suitable mobility training with a cane, she resolved to apply for a guide dog, reasoning that she would then receive mobility training as a matter of course. It was the only way she could guarantee the independence she craved.
Thrilled by the power mobility training gave her, Holly went on to be matched with a dog. The training went well, but Holly soon discovered that no matter how much you enjoy travelling with a service dog, you’ll have to make some sacrifices.

I got my dog, and the first year was incredibly stressful. I’m not shy, but I am not especially sociable. I don’t like strangers, I don’t like talking to people in public unless it’s a planned event. I want to move through the world quietly the way most people can. And I had no idea that getting a guide dog would prevent me from doing that.

As Holly spent more time with her guide dog, she discovered that blending in was now impossible. She couldn’t go about her business unnoticed or unencumbered, because “the public won’t let you.” She was forever fielding questions that were centred only on her dog, as though she was just a “vessel” attached to her dog’s harness. When she wasn’t answering questions, she was telling people off for feeding, touching, and distracting her dog. This life took a serious toll on Holly.

It was terrible. I cried most days. I hated being so visible, and yet utterly invisible all at once. I hated that I’d undergone this huge personal transformation and yet nobody saw me as a person.

Distraught, Holly considered giving up her dog, though conversations with her father, who was a dog handler for the army, persuaded her to be patient. Wait a year, he suggested, and if she was still unhappy at the end of it, she could return her dog.
Holly has chosen to persevere, but she acknowledges that it’s hard to “come out” as someone who doesn’t love being a guide dog handler.

We have this awful culture within the blind community where we can’t be honest if owning a guide dog actually feels a bit shit. It has to be sunshine and rainbows or you’re a failure.

When the Dog is the Problem: John’s Story

Of course, not all guide dogs are perfectly suited for the job. Every dog has flaws—they’re not robots—but some have quirks and tendencies that make you wonder why the school allowed the dog to graduate.
John was an unfortunate victim of this circumstance. He was pleased by his dog’s guidework, but the dog had an unfortunate vice: “My dog is a poop-eater.”
In contrast to Holly’s and Alicia’s stories, John wasn’t new to guide dogs. He worked with his first guide for over eight years, and so had no reservations about getting a second one. He was matched, and began training soon afterword.
When John was told that the dog liked to eat poop, he was a bit concerned, but didn’t waste excessive energy being anxious about it. He was certain that, with patience and persistence, the issue could be resolved. What is more, the trainer agreed to help with the process.

The instructor agreed to monitor the dog while he was in training. … For the most part, the dog behaved himself for the week and a half that I was with the instructor. Over time, I learned that not only would the dog eat poop, but he would also eat nuts, pinecones, grass, and everything else that was inedible.

The situation only worsened. John’s dog progressed to eating his own waste, which was quite a problem in enclosed spaces like his apartment, where his shag carpeting suffered most (no other carpeting was available, and cleaning it was a nightmare). Still, John remained admirably optimistic.

After eating poop, he would often vomit on my apartment carpet several hours later. At first, I found the whole thing disgusting, but felt upbeat and determined to solve the problem.

Calling the school was not as helpful as he’d hoped, though. He was told that disciplining the dog was nearly-impossible, because John would have to catch the dog in the act—a tall order if you can’t see what your dog is doing. To add to the fun, he was also informed that there was virtually no disciplinary measure he could take, as shock collars and other items would not be effective, either. He was left with only one option: a mouth guard. Unfortunately, that didn’t go so well.

I purchased [a mouth guard]at a Store and used it, but two things happened. First, the dog just lay on the ground and did not move when he had it on during playtime. Second, when he did see another dog doing its business, he ran over and shoved the mouth guard in the waste meaning that I had to clean up his face and the guard. At this point, I began feeling both helpless and frustrated. Why was I given a dog with such a severe problem?

As awful as he felt for himself, John also sympathized with his dog. Would the dog have to be constantly restricted when playing or roaming grassy areas? How healthy would his confinement really be for him? Another desperate call to the school only led to advice like “Oh, just play with him inside only.” However, the dog lost interest in this very quickly, leaving John with very few options.
Eventually, John gave up his dog.

I felt sad after he left, because he was truly a good worker and great companion. But I also knew it was the right thing for the dog and myself. After the initial wave of sadness past, I felt relief. I was glad the whole ordeal was over. I also felt a mix of frustration with the school and sorrow that a $30,000 dog only got a year and a couple months of use as a worker. I even felt the need to apologize to the instructor when he came to get the dog. I know how hard his puppy raisers and the team at the school worked to raise him, and I felt bad that all that work would be for nought.

While John may not be disillusioned with the guide dog experience in general, having been successful with it in the past, he has certainly been the victim of the guilt and humiliation inherent in giving up a guide.


While crowd-sourcing stories for this blog post, I was asked, rather confrontationally, what the purpose of the post might be. I suppose this person thought I was running a smear campaign against guide dogs—I don’t know, I didn’t ask. What I do know is that writing this post was an exercise in empathy and compassion, not bitterness or spite. I’m not publishing this post to put force behind my own refusal to get a guide dog. This is not a case of me saying, “See? See? It isn’t always perfect, you know!”
My aim is to expose people to both sides of this complicated choice. For many, guide dog travel is a dream come true. It’s more freeing than they could ever have imagined, and they would never go back to any other mode of travel.
For others, though, the situation is more complex and far less satisfying.
Here is what I ask: if you have read this post all the way through, and have identified with the stories herein, exercise caution when encouraging people to get guide dogs. Ask relevant questions, and ensure that the person you’re speaking to is in the right place—geographically and emotionally—for such an enormous responsibility. Make sure that your encouragement is based on thoughtful consideration, not societal expectation or the warm glow given off by your own positive experiences.
I ask, most importantly, that you be gentle with those for whom guide dog travel isn’t the best choice. Be compassionate. Do not assume that, if it doesn’t work out for them, it must be their fault. Don’t quiz them for hours on end about what they might have done to improve the situation unless you have compelling evidence that there was neglect or abuse involved. (Advice is helpful; judgment is not.) Place pressure on schools to provide necessary after-care and supports when things go awry.
Here’s the gist: you do you, and let them do them, and all manner of things will be well.

Dear Distracted Driver

I can picture what may have been on your mind. Maybe you’d just spilled scalding hot coffee on your brand new outfit, which was doubly annoying because you were on your way to a job interview—one you’d been preparing for with much nervousness and anticipation. Maybe you were late for said interview, and maybe your son chose that moment to text you: he forgot his lunch again—could you please bring it to him later? Maybe your heart sank. You didn’t have time for this—time for life, really—and the stress was piling on. You came to a rolling stop at the crosswalk, pausing just long enough to alert any dawdling pedestrians of your presence, reasoning that they’d see you and get out of the way. Then, you went ahead and stepped on it.

This particular time, the pedestrian was me.

You missed the white cane, I imagine, focused as you were on your phone, or the spilled coffee, or whatever it is you were distracted by. You missed the fact that I was dressed in a tight skirt and heels, and would never have had time to throw myself out of your way or run ahead of you as you drove toward me. I’m assuming that, for any number of reasons, you missed the fact that I was there at all. It took someone else’s frantic scream—I was standing there like a bewildered deer in headlights–before you lurched to a halt, giving me just enough time to hurry past before you took off again.

I know what you must have been thinking: pedestrians will move out of the way. Pedestrians can see you coming. Pedestrians do have the right of way, yes, but it wouldn’t kill them to wait once in a while, would it?

Most of the time, it wouldn’t, especially not at crosswalks … but one day, it just might.

No, I have no way of really knowing what was going through your head that day. I have no idea whether you were distracted, impatient, or simply negligent. I’ll probably never know. What I do know is that you are not alone. You have joined the ranks of the many other drivers who have run red lights, sped through quiet streets without looking, and inched their way by because I haven’t crossed the street rapidly enough for their liking. Every day, frustrated drivers curse slow, irritating pedestrians as we plod along across the street, often crossing when we’re not supposed to or taking too long to cross at all. Generally, it’s because we’re busy reading texts of our own, or mopping our own spilled coffee, or otherwise failing to pay attention. Drivers take a lot of heat, and pedestrians are frequently at fault, it’s true.

But what if, as in my case, there’s a different reason? What if the reason we didn’t get out of your way was because we simply couldn’t see you coming? Cars are quieter than they’ve ever been, and can be difficult to hear under certain conditions. Crosswalks and residential streets don’t have strict traffic patterns for us to follow; we just wait, listen, and hope. I’ve gotten used to the innate risk of being a blind pedestrian (which is much lower than most people think, by the way), and while some encounters leave me shaky and frightened, I enjoy the right to navigate urban areas independently.

So, I’m just gonna say it, because it clearly hasn’t gotten through so far: slow down. Slow down, and realize that not everyone is dawdling on purpose. Realize that some of us cannot see you coming, can’t dodge or change direction quickly, and can’t compensate for your distracted driving. Realize that some of us have mobility issues that make it impossible for us to walk quickly, or even cross in a totally straight, perfect line. Realize that, while our slowness and inability to see you can inconvenience you, your carelessness could injure or kill us.

Next time you come to a rolling stop at a crosswalk, I beg you to take the extra few seconds required to come to a full stop, look up from your coffee-covered lap, and pay attention. Remember that even the slowest pedestrian can only take seconds from your life and that one careless mistake could take every second they have left. Remember that, no matter how late you’re running, no matter how busy you are, there is always, always time to stop for pedestrians.
Taking your eyes off your phone and taking the time to look out for me won’t kill you. Failing to do so could kill me.

So You Like To Pet Service Dogs…

As I watch you encourage your child to engage with a working dog, even after the handler has asked you to stop, I cannot help but feel angry: angry that you, a stranger, feel that your child’s right to interact with a cute puppy dog is more immediately important than the handler’s wishes. I am angry that you would argue with a firm denial, even when it is given with respect and gentleness. I am angry that you are showing blatant disrespect for the safety and comfort of the dog’s handler. I am angry that you are teaching your child to disregard the proper treatment of service dogs. I am angry that you, as the parent, are refusing to live by example. I am angry that you are ensuring that service dog handlers everywhere will have to keep saying “please don’t pet the dog” indefinitely.

I understand: the dog is beautiful, and friendly, and a pure delight to touch. Your child adores dogs—probably, the dog adores children, too, and would welcome a little affection. You are a dog lover, and hate to deprive yourself or your child of the opportunity to indulge in a bit of doggie-interaction. You don’t want to disappoint your child. I’m a dog lover, too. I understand. But …

I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t matter, because you may choose an unsafe time to distract a working dog, thus inconveniencing or even endangering the handler. It doesn’t matter, because the dog has a million distractions to contend with already—dropped apple cores, other dogs, and tantalizing bits of popcorn—without sudden attention from a strange human. It doesn’t matter, because you should never touch someone else’s property without permission—and yes, the dog does count as property in this instance. It doesn’t matter, because you were told no. That, on its own, ought to be good enough.

Many of my friends are dog handlers, so I can guarantee that they don’t enjoy telling an eager child that they can’t touch the puppy. They don’t enjoy saying “no” three times a day. They don’t enjoy denying you the company of their dogs. They just want to get where they’re going without fuss, and the last thing they feel like doing is disciplining a complete stranger. They are not part of a conspiracy to ruin your fun. So …

Why do you do it? Why do you insist, even when you know better, upon continuing to violate another person’s space? Why do you continue to place handlers in awkward positions where they must discipline your child because you refuse to do so? Why do you care more about touching that sleek coat than you do about whether the handler makes it across the street safely? Why do you care more about your right to go to pieces over the cute doggie than another human’s right to autonomy? The dog is an extension of them, and when you touch the dog, you’re effectively intruding on their personal space as well.

If I placed a wandering hand into your stroller to give your child’s head a stroke, wouldn’t you be a bit nervous? If I reached over and grabbed your arm to say hello, wouldn’t you be annoyed? If I insisted on distracting you while you were trying to do an important job requiring vast concentration, wouldn’t you wonder where my manners were? So I will ask it of you: where are your manners?

Yes, we’re talking about a dog here, but that doesn’t exempt you from the rules of basic human courtesy. Maybe the dog would love to be stroked just now. Maybe the dog has had a long day and would love to flop down and have its belly rubbed. Ultimately, though, the dog has a role, whether that’s guiding a blind person, or alerting the handler of an approaching seizure, or assisting a police officer. That role precludes them from being an ordinary dog while they’re out and about. When that harness is on, the dog is not a cute little puppy you run up to—it is another living being, hard at work and deserving of your respect. Even more importantly, the dog is attached to someone who is depending on them, and that person is also deserving of your respect.

To those who pet the service dogs: no excuse is good enough. Please, for the sake of safety and common decency, stop.

I Put My Trust In Strangers (And It’s No Big Deal)

Nearly every time I show a stranger how to use sighted guide, they view my trust in them as admirable and brave. “I mean, I could be anybody! I could walk you off a cliff or something!” Some guides are so nervous that they get distracted by the burden of responsibility; this usually results in decreased awareness. I try to encourage them to relax: a nervous guide is usually a dangerous one—or at least an inconsistent one. Even the best guides, though, seem somewhat uncomfortable with the amount of people I need to trust in day-to-day life. I trust guides not to walk me off cliffs, it’s true, (though using a cane in conjunction with sighted guide helps—not everyone does this), and I trust people to be generally decent. I assume that most people will not deceive, manipulate, or harm me. And you know what? Most of the time I don’t give these assumptions a second thought.

All this trust bothers sighted people, though. Perhaps it’s because they are acutely aware of how much they rely on sight to keep themselves safe, so the idea of going without terrifies them. Perhaps it’s because they recognize their own fallibility, and they imagine my inherent vulnerability must far exceed theirs. The most likely explanation is that people worry about me, and want me to be okay. I’ve encountered peers who expressed horror and anxiety when I told them about all the times I’ve nearly been run down by drivers who didn’t feel like obeying general crosswalk etiquette. Fear is becoming a staple of most Western cultures, and that fear multiplies when disabled or otherwise vulnerable populations (like children, for example) are involved. We can’t let kids play out of their parents’ sight, and God forbid we allow them to climb a tree or walk to school on their own. This general anxiety invariably extends itself to shroud any and all disabled people, to the point where the able-bodied are far more afraid for our lives than most of us could ever be. Most of these risks are genuine, and the resultant anxiety has its roots in sensible instinct. I don’t intend to trivialize the very real dangers vulnerable demographics contend with. I don’t blame you for feeling a little overprotective of your children or disabled friends. It’s perfectly natural.

Everyone has to trust sometime, of course. Any time you get into a taxi or board a plane, you’re entrusting your very life to a stranger, whom you hope is well-trained and trustworthy. If you can’t operate a plane, you trust a pilot. If you can’t navigate a brand new area with complete confidence without sight, you trust a sighted guide. It’s that simple.

Now, I can’t discuss trust without emphasizing the need to have that trust honoured. If I trust you enough to let you lead me somewhere unfamiliar, particularly without my cane, you’d better not leave me stranded. If I trust you to obey the basic rules of traffic, you’d better not run me down. If I trust you to describe my surroundings, you’d better remain truthful. These are the basics.

If I’m trusting you to respect me, please don’t use my own blindness against me, particularly in public where opportunities for humiliation are numerous. If I’m trusting you to be my eyes, don’t exclude or invent details just because you can get away with it. If I’m trusting you to treat me like any other human being, please don’t make a spectacle of me. (Disguising your voice in an effort to trick me is not cute.) Finally, if I’m trusting you to keep me safe, don’t warn me of fictional obstacles, or subject me to similar practical jokes. They’re hardly ever funny and they can be more dangerous than you know. When in doubt, ask which ones I’m comfortable with, and if you’re a stranger, assume they’re unacceptable until you’re told otherwise.

This is not to say that I rely on others for every little thing. My readers, in particular, will understand how highly I value independence. If I can do something safely and well on my own, then I’ll avoid asking for help I shouldn’t need. Still, to pretend I never need help is misleading. So, yes: I do put my safety in other people’s hands on occasion. It’s almost never an issue.

I’m at peace with having to trust people, even strangers. I have little choice but to count on human decency, and so I do. In the vast majority of cases, my trust is valued and my faith rewarded. Nine times out of ten, I don’t even think about it, because it’s so intrinsic to my lifestyle. So don’t worry too much. You’re probably a better guide than you know. You’re probably a more accurate, useful describer than you realize. In short, relax: you’re probably doing just fine.

Don’t Mess with the Stick

While I’m not nearly as attached to my cane as other blind people are to their guide dogs (for obvious reasons) I still like having it around. It’s my mobility tool of choice, and it works well for me. More than that though, it represents security. A cane will almost always tell me what’s directly in front of me. It helps me walk in a straight line, because I can trail along walls, sidewalks and so on. My cane is a major contribution to my independence.
The cane is called many things, some of them peculiar: I’ve heard people call it my “helper”, “walking pole”, and even “special friend”. One older gentleman approached me and asked me whether I hike; “I have one like that, too,” he gushed. It’s hard to keep a straight face, let me tell you. I don’t mind if someone refers to it as my “stick”, but some blind people are particularly sensitive about it. If you’re unsure, just use cane to be on the safe side.

People are sometimes unaware that it’s important to me. They don’t know that it provides a degree of safety I wouldn’t otherwise have. They treat it like any other ordinary object, much the same way you’d treat a coat or backpack. They handle it like something they can take away from me.

When I enter someone’s home, I will often allow the cane to be taken away, for the simple reason that bringing a cane into a house is akin to leaving your shoes on—something that simply isn’t done in my culture, at least. It’s been everywhere my shoes have been, so it’s often trailed through mud, snow, and … other things, of which I prefer to remain ignorant. Unless I feel really uncomfortable navigating a strange house on my own, I will be glad to store the cane and use sighted guide instead.

In all other places, though—including and especially outdoor areas—I insist that my cane remain in my hand and under my control. If I’m left in an unfamiliar area without my cane, I become far less secure in my environment. I’ll walk much slower than normal, in case I bump into something. I tend to shuffle along, because I’m feeling my way with my feet instead of a cane, searching for tactile feedback. I will rely even more heavily on my hearing, so that I stand a chance of detecting larger obstacles like pillars, which create sound shadows. I never feel as blind as when I don’t have my cane with me.

Even when I have it handy, people fail to respect boundaries. They’ll lead me by the cane, pull it out of someone’s path, or even insist that I let go altogether so they can guide me (something I seldom allow). I acknowledge that it really does get in the way sometimes. If I have one hand on a guide’s elbow and the other on my cane, my hands are both occupied. My sighted guides often end up carrying trays, drinks, and other awkward objects I can’t put in a backpack or dangle from my arms. I hate that they have to do this, though they are almost always glad to accommodate. Then of course there is the issue of grace: canes are meant to bump gently against things—that’s what they’re for. If I don’t encounter something with my cane, I usually don’t know it’s there at all. Inevitably, my cane will bump things like ankles and—in one unfortunate case—more sensitive bits. It occasionally trips people, though that can be a symptom of distraction on their part. So, yes, it does make life harder for those around me, especially if they’re not paying much attention.

Although it gets on everyone’s nerves (including my own), I refuse to go most places without my cane. Indeed, when I’m without it, my right hand feels awkward. It’s not used to hanging limply, as though it’s uncomfortable without something to grasp. It’s absurd, really, but without my cane I feel slightly unbalanced. There’s something off about going without, unless I’m in a very familiar environment. Mine is collapsible, so it’s easy to bring it everywhere and fold it up when it’s not in use. That way, it’s there the moment I need it. The cardinal sin of cardinal sins: never, ever abandon me in an unfamiliar environment without my cane. If I’m trusting you enough to go anywhere with you sans mobility tool, don’t break that trust.

I sometimes wish people would respect and tolerate the cane the way they respect and tolerate guide dogs, which are far more conspicuous. My cane can’t bark, play, or scrounge for food, after all.

I hope this post has adequately explained why you shouldn’t mess with my stick, why you mustn’t insist that I leave it behind, and why it’s necessary to witness the stares I’ll invariably get. It’s just one of those things. So please—leave the stick alone.

Please Watch Where You’re Going…Because I Can’t

One of my favourite places to navigate is my university campus. People are reasonably polite. The place has a distinct community college atmosphere, which means there are few large crowds. Generally, fellow students respect the “stick to the right side” rule, so even heavy foot traffic flows quite smoothly.

Every now and then, though, someone will surprise me. I was climbing a near-deserted staircase, staying as far right as possible so I could follow the railing (I love railings, they make me feel safe and loved and whatnot). As I climbed, I heard someone approaching from above, though I found it odd that they were climbing down the left side rather than the right. Thinking that they were probably taking advantage of how empty the stairs were, I continued on my merry way (it would seem I’m always merry—who knew?). As she drew closer, though, I realized she wasn’t going to move. Rather than shift left a little—she was on the wrong side, after all—she chose to let us collide. Only as we did so did I notice a familiar clicking sound—she was texting. As I swayed, clutching the railing for dear life, I began an apology. Talking right over it, she said, “Watch where you’re going!” and stormed off. Well, darling, I would, but…

In an age when distracted driving is an epidemic and texting lanes are a thing, it’s becoming harder to trust that people will respect basic rules of foot traffic. I’ve always been used to bumping into people who refuse to move. That’s not going away. There will always be oblivious people who are too wrapped up in their conversations, or their phones, to notice what’s happening around them. Almost everyone I know has done this a time or two (I’m not blameless myself) but there are some who take it to extremes. Take a stroll through West Edmonton Mall sometime; you’ll see what I mean. Things are getting more dangerous, and I blame two things: mobile phones, and general apathy. People are so ready to assume that, if they’re not watching where they’re going, everyone else will compensate. As my city squabbles over bike lanes, I fling myself to one side as soon as I hear a cyclist approaching on the sidewalk. More than once, one of these cyclists has nearly knocked me over. No one is in such a tearing hurry that they can’t slow down for five seconds while they pass a pedestrian who can’t even see them.

“But Meagan,” you say, “people don’t always know that your blind! Most people can watch where they’re going, so how can you blame them?” I can blame them because of a little thing called visibility. If I’m standing around, sans mobility aid, then yes, I can understand people’s inability to recognize that I can’t see them. My eyes are relatively normal-looking, so it’s hard to tell that anything is wrong with them. They dart about in a frantic manner, but some people mistake this for extreme shyness. But if we are standing with canes out or dogs at our sides, there is very little excuse not to notice us. If people are paying attention to what is directly in front of them, they will definitely spot us. The girl who collided with me on the staircase was breaking an unwritten rule, and wasn’t aware of her own surroundings. This is a toxic combination. I do my best not to get into people’s way, and I apologize at least half a dozen times a day. It’s all the rage in Canada, don’t you know.

I have no problem with people bumping into me because it’s crowded, or because I accidentally cut them off. People bump each other all the time. It is not necessarily wrong or rude to do so. I’m not saying that people should throw themselves out of my path in case they brush my elbow. I am, however, saying that people could stand to pay more attention. If you know that you’re a bit distractible while texting, then move to one side, finish your text, and go your way. Don’t expect everyone—people who can’t see you, especially—to flow around you like an accommodating current.

Please, put your phone away and watch where you’re going…because I can’t.

Baby, I Wanna Hold Your Elbow

I was rushing through a mall (everything happens in malls), because I’d lost a friend and her guide dog. They’d left me behind in a cloud of dust, and I was trying to figure out where they’d gone. A stranger wanted to help, which was very kind of him. Unfortunately, his altruism took the form of grabbing the tip of my cane off the floor, raising it so that the cane was fully horizontal, and pulling on it as though to lead me by my own cane.

What else could I do? I trotted along behind him, asking him more and more frantically to put the cane down, please! He either failed to hear me, or ignored me, because he kept going until we reached my friend, at which point he let me go and went on his merry way. This, I thought wryly, should have been a teachable moment.

I’m a little shy, believe it or not, and I’m also a little too tolerant. Sometimes, people grab me and I just sort of plod along, wanting to object but not finding a polite way in which to do it. Most blind people are much more vocal than I am, and they have every right to be. After all, their safety is of utmost importance to them.

There are many ways to lead a blind person, and most of them are problematic. I won’t go so far as to say there’s a “right” way, but there is a way that is considered standard, and for good reason. The “standard way” is called sighted guide method, and it usually involves the blind person placing their hand on the sighted guide’s elbow. The grip should be light but firm, just in case something separates the two. The blind person should walk behind and a little to the side of the guide, so that things like steps, curbs, and doors will be easily detectable. In a perfect world, everyone would know this and use it, but of course this is anything but a perfect world. I won’t waste too much time going on about details; there are many sources that can teach you the ins and outs of sighted guide. I will, however, explain why it’s important and what can happen if other methods are used instead.

Alternative method: leading by the hand
Why it’s a bad idea: First of all, this is sort of weird. If I’m not familiar with you, I don’t want to be holding your hand no matter what’s happening. Cab drivers who approach out of nowhere and grab my hand frighten me just a little, I won’t lie. The main problem with this, at least for me, is that it traps my hand so that it’s harder to get free if I need to. If I’m resting my hand on your elbow, I can let go at any time. If something terrible happens to you, I can quickly escape before I meet a similar fate, after all. This goes for holding me by the wrist as well.
Possible consequence: I have been taught to twist my wrist as soon as someone touches it, so don’t be surprised if, when you grab for my wrist, I break your grip, hard, without even thinking about it.

Alternative method: leading by the shoulder
Why it’s a bad idea: People love to go behind me and push my shoulders, especially when navigating a narrow space. It makes me feel a bit uncomfortable—I don’t like to have people so close behind me, I’m paranoid—and it restricts my freedom of movement. Also…it looks kinda silly, yes?
Possible consequence: At best, I’ll admonish you and try to wriggle out of your grip. At worst, I’ll bump into something directly in front of me, because I had no way to protect my path. (This can be mitigated by carrying a cane during sighted guide—something not everyone does.) It’s much easier to move your arm behind you so I know it’s a narrow space.

Alternative method: guiding while insisting that I ditch my cane
Why this is a bad idea: My cane is my mobility tool. I have grown very used to having it around, and I quite like the confidence it gives me. I have had some awful sighted guides over the years, and I still don’t trust anyone to guide me without my cane. You could be the best guide in the world, and I’d still want my cane in my hand. I do my best to keep it out of the guide’s path, and it gives me that extra bit of tactile feedback I find so helpful.
Possible consequence: You could have an attention lapse, even for thirty seconds, and bash me into a pillar, stroller, car mirror, pedestrian, or doorframe, among other things. (Yes, people have run me into all of those and more.) Even if your guidework is perfect, I’ll still glare at you. Lots of people say, “…but I guide blind people all the time and they never use their canes. Trust me!” No. Unless it’s in your way, or otherwise inconvenient, I’m using it, and that’s pretty much that.

Alternative method: linking arms
Why it’s a bad idea: Okay…so…I’ve done this one. I cheat a lot, because I have friends who like to walk arm in arm and it’s all very companionable. Still, it’s technically a bad idea because it forces us to walk side by side, which means I have less warning for steps and curbs. It also traps my arm, which is always dangerous.
Possible consequence: If my arm is in yours and something happens to you—say, you slip on a patch of ice—I’ll be dragged along with you unless I can get my arm out of your grip in time. When being guided by a stranger, especially, I am very careful to keep full control of my arm and hand.

The best method? Ask. Some blind people prefer different variants of the same basic guiding style, so if you’re not sure, ask them to show you how they’d prefer to be guided. If you’re dealing with a blind child and you know their preference is patently unsafe, then you have the right to insist on a different way. Otherwise, please respect the individual needs and preferences of the blind person you’re guiding. They will almost always know best.