A Disabled Person Refused Your Help? Keep Calm And Carry On

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: one of the inescapable pitfalls of blindness is a lack of precision. Even with the help of a guide dog, no blind person is going to be as precise in their every movement as most sighted people. In familiar surroundings, we can dazzle people with our ability to navigate with grace, but take us outside our elements and we can flounder a little. It will take us a little more time to find door handles; locate a cup someone has just placed in front of us; connect with someone else for a handshake; retrieve a dropped object. There may be fumbling. There may be moments of awkwardness in which our questing hands are a quarter of an inch away from what we’re seeking—just enough to drive sighted people crazy—though we’ll always figure it out eventually, either on our own or by asking for specific assistance.
And you know what? That’s okay.
The nondisabled person’s obsession with precision can be taxing. If it takes me a second longer to find an object than a sighted person deems reasonable, I can expect to have instructions lobbed at me in a frantic voice. I can also expect an exasperated sigh, or a pitying tongue-cluck. Often, they say something like “I hate watching you looking for stuff! It just kills me. It’s right there!”
The situation will usually escalate, and I’ll get grabbed, even and especially by people I don’t know. Crazed as they are by the idea of someone taking seconds longer than normal to accomplish everyday tasks, they are filled with an insatiable need to speed things up.
You may accuse me of hyperbole, and if you’ve never seen this phenomenon in action, I wouldn’t blame you. Do your best to trust me when I assure you that this happens, and it happens all the time.
Just a few weeks ago, I was entering a crowded room. My plan was to emerge slowly and carefully, and search methodically for the empty seat I knew had been saved for me. Before I had time to take one step forward, someone detached herself from the crowd, galloped toward me, grabbed my arm in a disconcertingly tight grip, and proceeded to escort me to my seat as though I were in danger of being trampled by invisible elephants.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped, not sounding particularly sorry at all, “I know you can find it yourself, I just…it’s the mom in me, you know? Can’t help it!”
(What I did not say: “Yeah, but you’re not *my* mom, and when my mom pulls stuff like this, she hears about it.”)
A few days after that, I was approaching a freshly-mopped patch of floor. A woman warned me of the wet-floor sign, which I appreciated, but she was not satisfied with my slow, careful pace. As I prepared to walk past her, she rushed to my side—herself in danger of slipping on the floor about which she was so concerned—wrapped her arm securely around me, and led me across the wet patch with such delicacy, you’d think we were crossing a frozen lake while ice shifted ominously beneath us. I felt like someone’s frail grandmother, (please don’t do this to your grandmothers, guys), and since I was in something of a hurry, I wasn’t pleased.
People have decided, without any input from me, that I cannot be trusted to climb stairs, walk down hallways, find doorways, eat, pull out chairs, cross streets, use escalators, walk down ramps, and get into vehicles safely. (This is not an exhaustive list.) For so many people, I am either seconds away from grievous injury at all times, irritatingly clumsy, or both. There is something in nondisabled people’s minds that can’t handle the idea of taking your time, being methodical, making mistakes you can learn from, doing things your own way. The insistence on everything being as precise as possible dismisses any alternative way of doing a thing if it’s even a beat slower. Each time someone says “Oh forget it! I’ll just do it! It’s faster anyway!” I get a tiny ache in my gut.
The crux of this isn’t so much that I object to people being helpful or overly concerned with my safety. I’m grateful that anyone takes enough notice of me to care whether I break my neck on a wet floor or get trampled by elephants. It’s the irritation that causes me the most pain. The idea that someone’s blood pressure would spike just by watching me put an empty fork in my mouth or backtrack to find a landmark I miss cuts deeply. Am I truly that painful to witness? Is this the root of all that unwanted, unwarranted pity?
Yes, sometimes a sighted person’s methods are quicker. It often happens that I’m happy to surrender a menial task to someone with working eyes because they’ll get it done at least as quickly as I can, and may do it more efficiently, too. That’s a fact of life. I’ve never been the most competent blind person in any room, so I freely acknowledge and accept that in matters of mobility, especially, I’m a little slower than most. My spatial awareness isn’t all that reliable—not a blindness thing, just a Meagan thing—so I’m content to concede that sighted people get around with an accurate grace that’s beyond me, especially because I don’t have a dog’s eyes to help me.
Despite these truths, I’m quite comfortable with this reality; I’m probably too comfortable with it, by some standards. I’m accustomed to being a bit slower, a bit more hesitant, a bit less exact—and after about two decades of it, it’s not a concern for me. I am quick and clever and efficient in the ways that matter to me. I can type like the wind. I can research well and write quickly. I can edit with a thoroughness that is at odds with my turn-around time, which has been praised multiple times for being unusually swift. My public speaking and facilitation skills are rapidly becoming my strongest assets. In these ways—the ways that pay my bills and make me useful to society—I do just fine.
So, really, why should I despair because it took me ten seconds to find a door handle? Is it worth being upset because I walked past the staircase I was looking for and had to double back? Will anyone’s quality of life suffer because I tried and failed to give them a high five?
Nope.
So, nondisabled people, as much as I understand and appreciate your wish to help, please keep calm, and carry on if your help is not required. Please keep your hands off strangers, and even off friends and family members unless they have given permission. Remind yourself, when you feel that urge to “fix” a situation, that precision isn’t everything. Efficiency isn’t everything. Perfection isn’t everything.
Independence, autonomy, agency, respect—these are everything.

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Paratransit Is Bad (But Your Judgment Is Worse)

If you want to get a group of blind people to sneer derisively or rant passionately, simply mentioning the word “paratransit” will often do the trick. Paratransit, for those fortunate enough to be uninitiated, is the general term often used to describe specialized accessible transportation. Many cities offer this service, under several different names, to ensure that people who cannot take public transit can still travel. There is a very wide range of people who use these services, so they can be quite complicated to administer. Coordinating schedules is complex, particularly when life’s everyday interruptions throw a wrench into carefully-planned runs. As you can imagine, this creates an awful lot of frustration for just about everyone.
When I first signed up for paratransit, it was out of dire necessity. I was living off-campus for the first time, (I grew up in an area so rural I did not properly understand basic intersections until I was seventeen), and I needed a reliable way to commute each day. Due to less-than-ideal circumstances, I found myself living in a part of my city that was nearly impossible to navigate without sight. It certainly wasn’t pedestrian-friendly, transit was sporadic, and my options were severely limited without the ability to drive. At my roommate’s urging, I agreed to investigate paratransit.
Paratransit, I soon discovered, had its serious downsides. Drivers had a generous half-hour window for pickup, so I never quite knew when I would arrive anywhere. I had to arrange to be extremely early for everything, because I couldn’t predict how long the trip would be ahead of time. The same commute could take ten minutes one day and an hour the next, depending on the whims of the dispatchers. Scheduling was tricky and the rules were quite strict, such that abrupt schedule changes could rarely be accommodated. Even now, when I’ve been using the service for almost a year, I become anxious each time someone sends me a last-minute invitation to dinner, or I wake up feeling a migraine approaching. Since there are thousands of people using the system, my personal ups and downs aren’t met with much sympathy.
Worse still is the attitude of so many working for paratransit. While I only have firsthand experience with my own city’s system, the stories I hear are all variations on the same sad theme: disabled people’s time is neither valued nor respected. Paratransit is treated like a charitable service for which we should be quietly and reverently grateful, even though many of us pay well for it. So many seem surprised that getting to work on time is of importance to us (or that we work at all). Some appear to believe that disabled people only ever go out to attend medical appointments. Still others, mostly in administrative roles, are unmoved by the idea that, no, I can’t cancel my trips 24 hours before a migraine strikes. I don’t have that much warning. I’m human, and therefor subject to the unpredictability of my body. Disabled people are often plagued by medical issues, so the inflexibility of many paratransit services, where last-minute cancellations are penalized, suggests a startling lack of familiarity with and understanding of the very population they’re trying to serve. I am, therefore, disappointed to say that paratransit systems, in my city and elsewhere, are in need of major changes if they’re to be a viable option for disabled people with full, active lives.
Above all else, though, what make using paratransit hardest are the criticism, judgment, and snide comments of fellow blind people. Many who have had to depend on paratransit in the past speak of their transition to ride-sharing services (which not everyone can afford) or public transportation (which is not always an option) with a kind of triumphant contempt. They describe paratransit in terms so dismissive I wonder if they actually remember what it was like or if they simply had unusually terrible experiences with it. Blind people in my own city, some of whom have never even tried it, have such condescending attitudes toward it and toward people who use it that I felt as though even admitting that I use it would mark me somehow. Paratransit, I learned, was for desperate, dependent souls who are either too lazy or too incompetent to use “real” transportation. Further, some of these people actively discourage others from using the service, supplying hyperbolic horror stories that are sometimes third-hand. As I was following the long and drawn-out procedure to sign up, I was warned, again and again, of how huge a mistake I was making—so huge, in fact, that a three-hour daily commute on public transportation was supposedly preferable.
I’m pretty quiet about my use of paratransit services, but when a new acquaintance posted about her own struggles on Facebook, I paid attention to the comments she received. Many, like mine, were understanding and supportive: yes, it’s terrible, but it’s okay that you still choose to use it despite its flaws. A few, though, had a much different tone—the tone of contempt I mentioned earlier. Apparently motivated by their own misfortunes, these people seemed intent on judging anyone who uses the service by choice, as though any self-respecting blind person would get out there and learn how to use the damn buses already. After seeing this one too many times, I felt compelled to speak up at long last.
When a disabled person complains about paratransit, empathize with them. Give them advice if you have any that is relevant to them, and focus on being kind. Hold your judgment and—yes, I’m going to use the P-word, which I rarely do, so listen—check your privilege. It is a privilege to use something other than paratransit. It is a privilege to have the mobility skills and confidence to use public transportation. It is a privilege to live in an accessible location. It is an even bigger privilege to have the means to use ride-sharing services, which are financially out of reach for a lot of people.
I beseech you: next time you find yourself judging people who use paratransit, or cajoling someone into dropping it, stop and think about whether these comments will be productive or respectful. Does the person you’re talking to have personal reasons for using the service? Do they have other disabilities that have an impact on their travel needs? Do they have the skills and confidence to use public transport? Do they have the money to use ride-sharing services and cabs? Are they, like me, plagued by anxiety and a severe lack of outdoor orientation and mobility skills for various reasons? Is it, perhaps, none of your concern?
For me, and for all the people I know who willingly use paratransit and feel it is the best current option for us, do us a favour. Let us complain. Pat us on the shoulder and make comforting noises. Be there for us if we decide to switch transportation method. Do not, however, tell us yet another horror or conversion story. We’re frustrated enough as it is—after all, our ride is late again!

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.