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.

Go Away, Guide Dog Goop!

I have known a few guide dog teams personally, and have always been struck by the devotion they feel toward each other. The human practically radiates protectiveness and trust, while the dog gives the impression that it would do literally anything for its companion. Even on “bad days”, they seem so endearingly optimistic. Calling it cute would be cheapening it. It’s pretty inspirational, though, and I never throw that word around.

As we should all know by now, I have no interest in getting a dog myself. Much like a woman who does not want children, I have been hassled about this decision for years. And, while I can appreciate the bond between dogs and their handlers, I don’t feel that tug in my chest that says “I want”. I can admire it, but I can’t make myself desire it.

As you can imagine, I find it difficult to relate to guide dog handlers. I give no more thought to my cane than I would to the shoes I use to walk or the jacket that keeps me warn. I’m not used to considering my travel aid an actual companion. When I get home I fold my cane and stick it in a corner. Guide dog handlers are always interacting with their charges in some way, even if it’s peripheral. Like those with children, guide dog handlers are often expecting me to relate to experiences I won’t ever have … and it gets hard after awhile. I do know some very considerate handlers who only give me as much information as I ask for. Some, however, seem to lack that social filter which says, “That’s enough”.

So, like many people who don’t want dogs, I am subject to everyone else’s constant talk (well, mostly posts) about their guide dogs. You know how there are certain parents intent on documenting every single move their children make? It’s like that … only somehow worse. I can’t put my finger on why, but the myriad cutesy posts about the fact that Spot has managed to walk down one whole block successfully drive me insane. I don’t mind the odd congratulatory post—dogs can bring their handlers through some terrifying conditions—but the line needs to be drawn somewhere. I don’t need to know that your dog is currently asleep under your desk. I don’t really care if your dog was behaving particularly well in harness today. I am so sick of reading about how much your doggie loves his or her treats, or ball, or squeaky toy, etc. etc.

I probably sound very grumpy and intolerant, and maybe I am. But here’s the really infuriating bit: there are certain handlers intent upon glorifying their bond with their guides to the point where you’d think they were superheroes just waiting to save the world. These people are the type who mingle their signatures with their guides’ names. They write lengthy blog posts from their dogs’ perspective. They troll forums about “guide dog vs. cane” debates, and interrupt diplomatic discussion by spouting things like “Don’t you dare devalue the bond!” and “Once you have a dog you will experience true independence and fulfillment!” and so on. They are few, but they’re not quite far between enough for my liking.

Go ahead: take photos of your guide dog. Wax poetic about the accomplishments you and your dog have managed today. Painstakingly document every single step of the training process, if you really want to. Just please…don’t be offended if I’m not all that interested. I’m happy for you, I really am; but, like overenthusiastic parents who assume I want to know every detail about their kids, the goop you occasionally ask me to process can be a little hard to slog through at times. Please don’t be offended if I say “I’m really not interested”. It’s honest, not malicious. We all have the right to filter the content we consume, since there is so much of it. Please let me filter mine.

Author’s note: Before you ask, this post is *not* directed at anyone in particular. Please don’t come to me protesting that you don’t do stuff like this; I’m probably not talking about you.

Unfriendly Reminders: On the Dangers of Complacency

While walking home a few nights ago, I got lost. This would have been okay, but I was traveling a route I know intimately; I’d used that route for almost three years without mishap. That might have been okay too, except that it was -25C outside and, since it is supposed to be a two-minute walk, all I had was a pair of woefully inadequate mittens and a winter jacket. I still don’t know exactly where I went wrong. I was navigating the crosswalk, the same as usual, and I must have veered sharply, because I missed the sidewalk entirely and ended up wandering into relatively unfamiliar territory. It was nearly one in the morning, so there was no traffic to act as an auditory guide. It was one in the morning, so I couldn’t even use what little vision I have to help me. It was one in the morning, so I was totally alone.

It was bitterly cold—so cold that even I, a brave little Canadian, had to admit I was getting a little anxious. I took off my mittens to use my phone. My fingers were so cold that the phone didn’t even register my touch. I had to use Siri to call a nearby friend so she could rescue me. Meanwhile, I was trying to find a safe place to stand. I settled for a precarious perch on an ice-encrusted snowbank, reasoning that this, at least, would be traffic-free should any traffic actually show up. Luck smiled on me that night, so my friend said she was coming to get me. I waited. And shivered. And wondered what in hell I’d done to get myself so lost in such a short amount of time. And I worried.

It took my poor friend a while to find me, so I had ample time for reflection. Before long, unwelcome tears were emerging, freezing as quickly as they materialized, naturally. I had grown complacent, I realized. I had failed to bring a backpack containing warmer clothes and some headgear. I had already spent a lot of time that evening walking around outdoors, so was pretty chilly to begin with. I didn’t count on getting lost. I thought I was infallible, with this route at least. Maybe, I thought grudgingly, there was a lesson here.

There are, of course, some obvious lessons: don’t go out in dangerously frigid temperatures without carrying extra clothing. Don’t count on having help so late at night if something happens. Invest in a pair of gloves that can be used with a touch screen, perhaps. The most uncomfortable lesson, though, is don’t ever, ever grow complacent.

Confidence is fine. We all deserve to take a few things for granted, particularly routes we’ve been navigating for years without a single serious misstep. Sighted people don’t have quite the same worries as we do when they get lost, so it’s comforting when we can enjoy that level of assurance, at least in certain locations. Nine times out of ten, everything will go as well as you hope it will.

But be prepared for the times when it doesn’t. Know that, sometimes, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Know that the climate may not always be kind. Know that people may not be around to assist. Know that you are not perfect, and that you can always make mistakes you never even imagined. Confidence is your friend; complacency, your enemy.

Many of you are likely shaking your heads: “Getting lost is not that bad, Meagan! It’s not a life or death situation!” You’re right, usually it isn’t. Most of the time, if we get lost, we wander around until we find a landmark to get us back on track. We approach someone and ask for help. We use our orientation skills to figure out where we went wrong so we can backtrack. When all that fails, however, (and it will fail), you’re left with unpleasant consequences like frostbite, dangerous neighbourhoods, and unexpected hazards or obstacles. Worst of all, though, you run the risk of becoming even more thoroughly lost. I have wandered through sketchy neighbourhoods after 11:00 p.m. and I don’t recommend it. I think my blood alcohol level rose just from being in the vicinity of some of those people.

By all means, take precautions. I chose not to do so and I paid dearly for my negligence. Next time, I might not have a friend I can call at a moment’s notice. I’ve been hopelessly lost before in nasty weather, and it never gets easier with time, I can promise that. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that more than precautions, an attitude adjustment is sometimes most valuable. Tempting as it may be, autopilot is never really an option—not when you’re blind. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking with a group of sighted friends; they can get lost, too. It doesn’t matter if you have a guide dog; you’re supposed to lead them, not the other way around. It doesn’t even matter if you know this route inside out and backwards. You’re not invincible. None of us is.

For as many years as you are on this earth, you will discover new and interesting ways in which you can screw up. Learn to accept this. It’s an unavoidable part of being human, and unfortunately for disabled people, the consequences are especially dire. But for every bonehead mistake you make, there is a lesson. As they say, life is a harsh teacher, but an effective one.

Safe travels, guys.

Leaving On a Jet Plane…

Flying is scary for anyone. Even if the thought of relying on complete strangers to ferry you through the sky doesn’t make you a little nervous (I can say it’s never bothered me), airports are intimidating enough for even the most seasoned travelers. Some airports are massive enough to have train systems and moving sidewalks. If you plan to fly internationally, you have to deal with customs and security and all the rest of it. Sighted people can see where they’re going and read detailed maps, but many of them still hate and fear the experience. Given the anxiety this process elicits in sighted people, flying on my own for the first time put a great many butterflies in my stomach…and I can assure you that they were not flying in formation.

I’m rather prone to ranting on this blog, but today I get to rave a little instead. I’ve flown independently several times now (my long-distance relationship forced me to get over my anxieties real quick) and each time has been a breeze. You see, if you have a disability that can make it difficult for you to navigate the airport, you can ask for assistance when you book your flight. Each time I flew, I was greeted by a security agent at the check-in desk, and led through security, then to my gate, then onto the plane before regular passengers boarded. I didn’t have to worry about finding the right gate, or getting onto the plane in time, or even finding my seat and stowing my luggage. Once I boarded the plane, the flight attendants showed me where the emergency exits and bathrooms were located. WestJet, in particular, is always quick to provide you with a brailled copy of the safety information so that you can be given the same information as everyone else. They even showed me where the call button was in case I needed anything during the flight. Because I am absurdly averse to inconveniencing people, I never used it, but at least I knew it was there.

When we landed, a flight attendant escorted me off the plane and handed me to an airport employee who helped me find my luggage and either book a shuttle home or wait for people at the arrivals gate. It was the easiest and most worry-free experience I could possibly have imagined. Travel is stressful enough without having to agonize over finding your way around an unfamiliar place where time is of the essence.

As with anything else, there are a few snags. Guide dog handlers often run into situations where there isn’t much room on the plane for the dog. Some airlines are unwilling to allow the dog onto the plane, even though they are required to do so by law. Still others will insist that blind passengers pay for an extra seat if they want to bring a guide dog along. Even if you’re a cane traveler, you can run into a few issues. More than once, I’ve been offered a wheelchair to carry me through the airport, despite the fact that my legs work just fine, thank you very much. Sometimes they do this because they’re not sure what would be best, but other times they offer this because they can’t be bothered trying to guide me. I have been lucky: I have declined the wheelchair each time and that has been honoured; some are told that they must use the wheelchair if they want assistance. Opinions will vary on this one, but I consider it just a wee bit degrading to be told I am not permitted to walk when I am perfectly capable of doing so.

One of the most disconcerting issues is when you get stuck with a customer service agent who wants very little to do with you. Last week, during a layover in Seattle, my fiancé and I (also blind) were guided by a woman who seemed intent upon getting us to our gate and getting rid of us as quickly as she could. Perhaps she was short on time, or just having a bad day, but her attitude was barely courteous. This stood in sharp contrast to the friendly and solicitous manner of most of the airport employees I have dealt with in the past. I am usually blown away by their sincere concern for my comfort. It’s a kindness rarely found and truly appreciated.

All things considered, air travel is a piece of cake compared to, say, bus travel. When describing the assistance I receive to sighted people, I have seen them express jealousy that they, too, can’t request to be guided step by step through the airport. Getting lost and confused is practically part of the air travel culture—if it can be said to have a culture at all—and avoiding this altogether is a privilege to be treasured.

You Should Get a Dog, Because…

I never intended to write more about the guide dog issue, both because the blog title itself and my introductory post should speak for themselves. However, I decided to address something that has been plaguing me for years, and that I’ve only just been able to fully articulate. You see, I can handle other blind people encouraging me to get a guide dog; they have them, they love them, so it’s only natural for them to nudge me toward it. Most of them are happy enough to respect my decision once I’ve asked them to stop. The public, on the other hand…

 

Ever since I can remember, people (family, friends, and even strangers) have been telling me to get a dog. Sometimes, they even have reasons that sound great on paper like “improved independence” and “safety” etc. Here’s the issue, however: when people give these reasons, they are either poorly-researched or entirely irrelevant to my needs as an individual. They often give reasons they themselves might want a dog if they could have one, failing to consider my own needs and preferences. While they don’t mean to be either, shaming me for not wanting a service dog is hugely selfish and judgmental.

 

Below, I will list some of the most common reasons people have given me, with my usual explanation as to why they don’t apply to me (or, in a few cases, why they are not even worth considering). It is my hope that after this post, those who have read it will understand my position and, more importantly, that that decision is personal. Here goes!

 

“You should get a dog, because it will make you so much more independent!”

Actually, the answer to that is yes and no, with an emphasis on “no”. It is very true that guide dogs can enhance independence by allowing for more fluid travel, particularly when unexpected obstacles (like construction or snowbanks) get in the way. While I’m fumbling around with my cane, the guide dog handler next to me has already found her way around the obstacle and is skipping along, happy as can be. It’s also worth noting that many guide dogs are trained to find certain objects like garbage cans, empty seats, counters, and doors. This is very handy when you’re navigating a somewhat unfamiliar area and you want to do so with some grace. So, does a guide dog make you somewhat more independent by default? A little, yes. Do I need that particular independence? Not so far. As it stands, I don’t venture into many unfamiliar areas on my own, simply because there hasn’t yet been any need to. I also don’t typically have trouble finding doors or empty seats, so what little independence a guide dog would give me wouldn’t really be worth having another living creature accompany me everywhere I go for the next decade or so. I suppose one could argue that a guide dog would make my travel more graceful to watch, but I can’t say I care much about that particular perk.

 

“You should get a dog, because you’d always have companionship!”

Yes, people have actually given me this one, and it’s not just a fluke; I get this all the time. I figured I’d get this one out of the way early, because it will set the stage for some similar arguments. First of all, keep in mind that guide dogs aren’t just puppydogs with a few months of training and a fancy harness. These dogs are trained rigorously for years; this training costs thousands of dollars, and takes time, patience, effort, and skill. You could be on a waiting list for years, while they try to find you a suitable match. Even when your match is found, there is no guarantee that you and your dog (called a “team”) will be successful. Sometimes, temperaments don’t mesh, and you need to keep looking. Furthermore, once you receive your new teammate, you must spend the next months (or even years) training together. Every day is an exercise, bringing with it new challenges and opportunities. It’s a joy, but it’s also a ton of work. So, all this in mind, do you still think I should get a guide dog…for the companionship? If I want companionship, I’ll get a goldfish.

 

“You should get a dog, because you’ll get so much positive attention!”

Excuse me, what?

Yes, I understand that people are drawn to service dog handlers. Well, they’re drawn to the dogs themselves, and the handlers just happen to be there. I have even seen examples of blind people being mistaken for each other because they both have dogs; this proves that people often see the dog long before they see the person, assuming they see the person at all. Yes, people will come over and ask you what your dog’s name is, and want to pet him, and coo over how adorable he is. Yes, people will probably think about talking to you on the bus because instead of a weird stick thing, you have a cute little puppy for them to gush over. And, yes: walking around with a cane usually gets me either ignored or asked whether I need help. I rarely get “oooh how lovely! You have a cane!”, for obvious reasons. All I’ll say to that is, if people will only give me their courtesy and attention if I have a cute doggy with me, I don’t want their attention at all.

 

“You should get a dog, because then you’d have protection in scary neighbourhoods!”

I struggle with this one, because it’s usually put forth by people who know me, care about me, and want me to be safe. I grew up in a very rural area, and moving to the city at seventeen put some of my family on edge. I think they assumed I’d be walking the dark streets of downtown Edmonton wearing “target!” on my forehead. While it’s true that I fit most of the requirements for a vulnerable citizen (very long hair, small build, disabled, female—need I say more?), I don’t find myself in constant danger. Certainly, having a protective dog that will growl menacingly every time a suspicious person comes near would be reassuring, but would it really be worth being responsible for a dog 24/7—one that I don’t even need or want—just so I can feel safe in the dark scary night? Nuh uh.

 

“You should get a dog, because then you’d never get lost!”

Oh, how very, very misguided this person must have been. Guide dogs do tend to memorize routes the more you navigate them, but you still have to know where you’re going. A dog is not a GPS: you can’t tell her where you want to go and have her pull you along. Dogs can’t tell you which bus to get onto or even where that bus is. All they can do is ensure that you don’t bump into anything or stray into traffic while you find your destination. True, they will eventually know exactly how to get to work, school, and other frequent destinations, but otherwise they are relying on you, the team leader, to give them instructions. Guide dog handlers still get lost; they still have to memorize routes; they still have to know where they’re going and how to get there. A guide dog is not an easy way out.

 

“You should get a dog, because you love animals!”

I do love animals. You know those people who lose their minds as soon as something cute and fluffy is nearby? That’s me. I’m the one on my knees, cooing, making a total fool of myself because I’m already too lovestruck to keep my composure. I grew up with dogs and cats, and I get very, very lonely for my animals sometimes. That being said, not wanting a guide dog does not automatically mean I don’t like animals. Some have even insinuated that choosing the cane means I simply don’t want to take care of another living creature that isn’t me. This couldn’t be farther from the truth: I’m ridiculously maternal at times, and once I can have pets again they will be very spoiled indeed. Once again, we come back to cost-benefit analysis. Is it worth getting a highly-trained service dog just because he’s an animal and I’d adore him? Absolutely not. You should get a service dog because you want one; because your lifestyle is conducive to having one; because you require the added independence; because you really want fluid travel; because you hate the cane and love traveling with a guide. You should not get a service dog because “it’s sooooo cute!”. That would be terribly irresponsible, no?

 

“You should get a dog, because mature, independent blind people all have dogs!”

This one is admittedly rare, but I’ve definitely heard it, even from people who knew almost nothing about blindness in general. I think the misconception is that blind children start off with the cane, become very skillful travelers, then immediately graduate to a guide dog as soon as possible. The cane is treated like a set of training wheels, if you will, designed only to get you used to traveling. Once that’s done, you can get a dog and be a “real” blind person. This, of course, is total BS. I know many, many capable blind travelers who only use canes; I even know some who had a dog for awhile and switched back to the cane because it suited their needs better. Aside from the fact that the notion of “good” versus “bad” or “fake” versus “real” blind people is hardly worth anyone’s consideration, no one knows my travel needs better than I do, full stop. This has been a recurring theme on this blog, and there’s a reason for that: at some point, people must accept that when it comes to my disability—my individual disability—I know better than anyone. That’s not an effort to be arrogant or dismissive; it’s just truth.

 

Let me state once again that I understand why people encourage me to get a dog. They are well-intentioned people who want me to be safe, happy, and capable. What they don’t realize, of course, is that their definitions of same may be different from my own. I don’t intend to offend or alienate anyone with this post; what I want is to help my sighted readers understand that blind people know themselves best. I’m always open to new ideas, and I’m by no means an island. Still, if I’ve considered your opinion carefully, and still find it lacking, please don’t push. It will fall on deaf (ha ha) ears.

Don’t Get Grabby: Respect The Personal Bubble

I’ll be the first to admit that my personal space is quite small as they go. I’m apt to hug strangers (assuming they’re okay with it, obviously), I love handshakes, and I have no trouble taking someone’s arm in order to be guided—or just to be companionable, because why not? That said, one of the things I have to be hyper-aware of is the personal space of other people. Just because I’m comfortable with casual touch doesn’t mean that everyone is. So, out of simple respect, I refrain from touching, grabbing, or manhandling people without their permission. Seems obvious, right? Not really.

Ever since I can remember, I have been casually touched and/or grabbed by complete strangers, usually without any kind of warning or preamble. Sometimes, it’s justified enough: I’m headed straight for a pole, and someone panics and grabs me to keep me safe. I can understand that, even though I’m often aware of exactly where I’m going, and know that my cane will strike the pole before my face will. I can forgive that kind of protective instinct. It gets a little problematic when people decide to grab or otherwise touch me for very flimsy reasons, the most common of which is because they seem to think that people with disabilities—especially blind people—don’t have a personal bubble in need of respecting.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this, either. Just about every blind person I’ve ever spoken to at any length has mentioned that they’ve been frequently grabbed, touched, or otherwise physically manipulated either against their will, or at least without permission. This might start out sounding a little silly: what’s the big deal, right? So someone grabs you to keep you out of the way of some obstacle? What could possibly be wrong with that, in this otherwise apathetic society?

Here’s what’s wrong with it: many of us have a large personal space, and we don’t appreciate being grabbed, nudged, or prodded without warning, especially if the reason is anything less than “I thought you were going to get yourself killed”. Here are just a few scenarios (because I like lists, sue me), in which I’ve been grabbed or otherwise touched in a way I disliked, with explanations as to why I object. In all cases, speaking to me first would have been the best option. Perhaps, by the end of this little post, people will be a bit more willing to keep their hands to themselves unless the circumstances are especially dire. Here goes …

In my first year of university, quite early in the term, I was headed for one of my classes. Just as I was nearing the door, I felt an arm wrap tightly around my waist, and I was steered bodily towards a hallway I had no intention of going down. I was so shocked I couldn’t say a thing; I just turned my head towards the person who had hold of me, and gaped. Eventually, after a few awkward steps, I was given an explanation of sorts: “The hallway is this way”. “I don’t want to go down the hallway.”

“You were about to run into a door.”

“No no, I was headed towards the door on purpose so I could open it…”

“Look, where are you trying to go?”

“Room 6-262!”

“Oh!” he cried, sounding indulgently exasperated, “it’s right here!”

Where do you suppose he led me? Back up the hallway, and right to the door I’d originally been heading for. He then acted as though I should have been grateful for the guiding. Think again, buddy. You do not just grab a strange woman, especially when she can’t see you, and lead her off somewhere. Didn’t your mother teach you anything?

In the same university, I was heading past a staircase, intending to go down a different path. Suddenly, a woman appeared at my shoulder and locked my left arm in a death grip, locking both my elbow and wrist so that I couldn’t disengage without considerable effort. “Where you want to go?” she demanded, in a frighteningly strident voice. “Um…where I was headed…” was all I could mutter. “Stairs?” she asked, ushering me towards the staircase. “No, no! I’m okay, thank you!” … It took a long time to get my arm back, and I booked it away from her as quickly as I could. I understand that she meant well, but having my arm immobilized by someone so determined to take me down the stairs to some unknown fate was a little on the unnerving side.

My final scenario is one which, while the most benign, terrified me the most. It is illustrative of exactly why you should treat blind people like normal people and respect their personal spaces. I was walking along, quite lost in profound thought (probably imagining what I’d have for dinner or something) when I was grabbed out of nowhere. I could immediately tell that it wasn’t the typical “you’re about to walk over a cliff edge” grab, and it wasn’t the “I want to guide you somewhere” grab either. It was more of a “stop walking” grab, and while I didn’t tell him so at the time, I was absolutely terrified for a split second. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a good friend, and I was very pleased to see him. He’d just wanted to get my attention, and I guess he decided that he really really wanted me to join him over by the wall. Instead of calling my name, though, he chose to simply grab me and move me towards where he wanted me to stand. While I understand why he did it, I still think calling my name would have been far more polite. He really scared me for a second there.

If this comes off sort of bitchy, please try to understand me when I say that this is a very common complaint. It is mostly just annoying, but it can be dangerous at times. Many of the blind people I know have recommended that I take self-defense classes, not just to fend off those who mean harm, but also to free myself from well-meaning strangers who decide to get grabby. I once heard that one poor blind girl was grabbed by a stranger who was absolutely convinced that she wanted to go down the escalator. Escalators are a bit dangerous at the best of times; they’re made even more so when you can’t see where you’re going and have a stranger dragging you alongside them. I have heard of blind people being pulled into streets they didn’t want to cross because someone was trying to be helpful. I have heard of blind people being dragged off somewhere because people decided they wanted them to go there. I have had people grab my hands and been made to feel things, because it was assumed that being blind means you want to touch everything in sight. I have even been hugged and kissed by people who knew me, but who didn’t think to introduce themselves first or even warm me that they were nearby. It’s not okay.

You would never ever dream of touching the average person in this way, so why on Earth would you think it’s okay to randomly grab a blind person? Disability makes us no less human, and we have boundaries, just like you do. Please, for the safety of us all if nothing else, respect them.

Let It Snow! (Just Keep It Away From Me)

So, as many of you may be aware, we lucky Albertans have already seen our first snow. Yes, the calendar says it’s still summer, but Canada has always been something of a free spirit: it shuns all constraints and does what it damn well pleases. Conclusion? We have snow. And soon, it will stick to the ground, pile up in drifts, and hang around being a general nuisance until May or June.

Normally, this is little more than an annoyance: it’s harder to travel, whether on foot or in a vehicle, and we’re forever shovelling it aside. For a blind traveler, however—especially one who uses a cane—it can be an absolute nightmare. As silly as this may sound, enough snow can actually make the entire environment seem hopelessly unfamiliar. Not only does it turn the entire world white (as those of us who can see contrast always notice), but it also makes everything feel and sound different. Most sighted people probably don’t realize that snow changes the way a car sounds as it travels down the street. Instead of being crisp and clear, the sound is muffled and a little quieter than it should be. Cars themselves are quieter than they’ve ever been, so it’s even harder to hear them coming. Scary stuff!

Then, there is the snow’s uncanny ability to hide vital things like sidewalks. I’m lucky enough to live in an area where constant foot traffic insures that the sidewalks are cleaned regularly, but sometimes even I can’t find the sidewalks when I need them. Once, while bumbling around like an idiot, looking for the right path to take through all this new white fluff, I asked a passer-by, “Where did the sidewalk go?”. “There is no sidewalk,” he replied, in a forlorn voice, “…not anymore. Just keep walking in that general direction and you’ll be fine, I think.”. Comforting, indeed.

It’s also a bit of a trial to travel during a snow storm, at least for me. It’s hard enough to feel and hear where I’m going without wind and snow driving into my face on a consistent basis. Even if I close my eyes, put my head down, and charge on bravely like any good Canadian would, I still have to contend with the distracting barrage of harsh, icy flakes hitting my vulnerable little face. I find it difficult to protect my ears as well, because covering them makes it so much harder for me to hear properly. I can’t really win. This holds true for torrential rain as well. I once got lost during a tornado warning, and the rain was so disorienting that I completely missed a sidewalk and ended up lost for ages before I was rescued. Using an umbrella while juggling a cane can be a bit tricky, and that also messes with sound. Remember what I said about not winning either way? … Yeah.

Gregg tells me that when he was growing up in the suburbs of Hamilton, Ontario, his route to school involved walking down a road with no sidewalks. This wasn’t usually an issue, as he’d just hug the shoulder and keep an ear out for cars. When it was snowing, though, he could only really walk in the tire tracks, so if a car was coming at him, he had to book it out of the way before he became little more than paste on the roadway. Luckily, he has yet to turn to paste, so I guess there was lots of luck involved. As I mentioned earlier, the snow makes it even harder to hear oncoming traffic, so it really was a harrowing walk to school on occasion. You know you’re serious about education when …

Just when you thought you’d reach the end of the nasty obstacles snow can create, think about the two-foot drifts which line sidewalks and streets. Mostly, they’re fine: I trail my cane alongside them so that I can feel where I’m headed; in this way, it’s a lot like following a grass shoreline in summertime. The problem arises when I try to cross the street. It’s not a little nerve-wracking when you’re trying to find the sidewalk, and encountering only snowbanks because you’ve veered a bit. Guide dog travelers are lucky in this respect, but we poor cane travelers end up searching frantically for the illusive sidewalk, all the while stuck standing in the street as cars whoosh past behind us. Even though I’ve done this hundreds of times by now, it still scares me senseless every time.

Sometimes, those pesky drifts can make sidewalk travel—assuming you can even find the sidewalk, that is—a bit treacherous. I was once walking down a very narrow sidewalk, trailing the side of a building. When I came upon a very high pile of snow that completely blocked my path, I simply stopped, not knowing what to do. I had to resist the urge to burst into song: “Can’t go under it…can’t go through it…can’t go around it…I’ll have to go over it!”. Some kind soul came along and I asked him if there was any way for me to get around the drift. Without a word, this gentleman took my hand and literally lifted me right over the snowbank, depositing me gently on the other side. Normally I’m not big on people carrying me around without my consent, but in this case, I was more than grateful!

Perhaps the scariest thing about snow travel is the foreignness of my entire environment. Even if I know the area well, the whole world seems strange and frightening because everything feels and sounds so different. I’ve gotten lost a few times simply by veering a few feet left or right. The biting cold doesn’t help, either: getting lost in summertime is bad enough, but getting lost while you’re freezing is even worse. Remember those legendary prairie blizzards so fierce that you had to use ropes to get from your house to the barn and back? Remember poor little Laura Ingalls Wilder waiting hopefully for her Pa to come home because he was lost in the blizzard outside? Yeah, that’s going to be me one day. I’ll have to petition the city of Edmonton for some ropes leading to basically everywhere. (Don’t frown at me: you know you’d use them, too.)

Back when I lived in a rural area, winter was a good thing! The snow was a magical source of endless fun. In the city, though, it’s my worst enemy. As much as I love Canada, I do implore it to be kind to me this year, and keep the cottonfluff storms to a minimum. Will it listen? Stay tuned to find out! (I wouldn’t count on it, though.)

The Trouble With Transit…

Public transit is a truly wonderful thing, especially if your city has a good system. It’s particularly wonderful for blind people, who have no alternative except expensive taxis and carpooling. It’s a bit hard on the pride to continually ask for rides, and it’s even harder on the wallet to take taxis everywhere you go. For routes that I travel often, the bus (or LRT train) is the best way for me to get around.

 

Unfortunately, traveling with public transit isn’t all roses, as even experienced blind travelers will tell you. Having grown up in a rural area most of my life, I’m still getting used to how transit works. Everything from finding the right bus, to locating a seat, to getting off at the right stop is a challenge. Last summer, I had my first job, and I had to figure out the ins and outs of public transit in a few short days. It was … interesting to say the least. Below are just a few of the things which make bus and LRT travel so difficult for me. They make great stories, but I can’t say they’re some of my fondest memories.

 

Once, I asked the bus driver to drop me off on 109th avenue and 149th street, indicating a specific bus stop. When we got close, she said something very ominous: “I’ll just drop you off over here.”. Being hopelessly green, I didn’t think to say “Wait! Wait wait wait! Where, exactly, is ‘over here’?” I got off the bus, thanked the driver dutifully, and tried to get my bearings. Immediately, I knew I was in trouble. I was on an unfamiliar sidewalk, along an equally unfamiliar street. I walked to the nearest intersection, whipped out my phone, and tried to get my GPS to tell me where I was. It wasn’t helpful at all. I then called CrazyMusician, whom I was staying with at the time, but she couldn’t help much at first, either. I must have stood there for fifteen long, long, long minutes before she finally figured out where I was and got me back on track. When a blind person memorizes an exact route in an unfamiliar area, you can’t knock them even a little off course. If you do, their entire concept of where they are is changed. If I know the area, you could drop me off a block or two away and I’d figure it out eventually. If I don’t know the area, though, my destination could be 1000 miles away for all the success I’d have searching for it. Maybe other blind people are much better at mapping than I am (I expect I’ll be hearing from them, indignantly accusing me of misrepresentation), but I need to know exactly where I am to get anywhere with any kind of grace. Drivers who drop me off “over here” probably don’t realize that they’re endangering my entire sense of orientation. From then on, I  insisted that I be told explicitly where I’m being dropped off.

 

I used to have a very, very grumpy driver in the mornings on my way to work. Every day, just to be cautious, I’d confirm that hers was the bus I was looking for. There’s nothing worse than getting on the wrong bus and discovering it later. Every day she’d respond, sounding more and more irritated. One morning, she finally allowed her exasperation to show through. She, of course, was tired of saying “yes” every single time I asked. Probably, she thought I was a little on the slow side or something. I explained to her as politely as I could that it’s very important to check which bus I’m on. Annoying drivers for the rest of my days is worth being secure in the knowledge that I’m where I’m supposed to be. If I annoy you, well, I’m sorry, but I’d rather risk annoying you than end up somewhere other than my destination.

 

Locating a seat can be a bit of a challenge. The more a blind person rides buses, the more comfortable they will be with finding things. As I’ve said, though, I’m not overly comfortable with much of anything yet, so I definitely have a few stories about fumbling for a seat. For the sake of brevity, I’ll stick with this one: I was searching for a seat, reaching out with my hand like a good little blind person to feel what I was about to sit on. Instead of finding the rough material of the front seat, I encountered the lap of a very startled gentleman! I don’t think I’ve ever apologized so profusely before or since. I just hope he didn’t focus on the implications of such an intimate moment …

 

Perhaps my favourite story is the one where I tried to ride the LRT train with my friend Jess. Jess is a wonderful guide, but sadly there were no empty seats available, so we had to stand. I, having no balance whatsoever, was swaying so drunkenly with the movement of the train that I had to use her as a support pole, being unable to find one myself. Luckily for me, she’s a very steady person, so I just wrapped my arms around her and held on for dear, dear life. I had a similar incident on a bus one day. It was standing room only, and since I wasn’t sure where the nearest pole was, I simply fell towards the left side of the bus. Again, I was fortunate: a large crowd of passengers all rose at once and caught me. It was actually a bit surreal. I thank the universe every day for good people. They’re everywhere, they really are, and they’ll help you out of almost any sticky situation.

 

My final tale is one that’s a bit more serious. It happened while I was with CrazyMusician, so I’ll let her tell it:

“I was thrilled to have Meagan come and visit me. We laugh and talk like sisters sometimes, and bring out the hidden girliness in each other.

On Saturday, we went out for brunch at a mall near my house, and the timing and weather was just perfect enough to take Jenny, my black lab guide dog,

for a run in the park to expend some of that Labrador energy.

This path is a wonderful straight line of concrete where we could walk, and runners and bikers can exercise, and strips of grass on either side where Jenny

could run, frolic, and generally have a great old time, resulting in one very VERY tired dog.

After our lovely walk/run, we made our way to the bus stop to go back to my house. there are two buses that stop there – one that gets us home and one

that doesn’t.  Two blind people sitting on the bus bench – one of whom is with a guide dog – are not exactly inconspicuous…

We were sitting and chatting, and I think one of us (I don’t know who) looked at her phone, when a diesel vehicle just came flying past the bus stop.

As it shifted gears, I turned to Meagan and asked, “Wasn’t that our bus?”

I don’t think either of us would’ve been surprised if the bus had slowed down, we didn’t indicate our interest, and then kept going, but at the speed it

was flying down the avenue, there’s no way it could’ve stopped safely. As a result, Meagan, jenny and I were waiting on the bus bench for another thirty

minutes in the growing – though not unbearable – heat.

I did call in a complaint to the transit company, if for no other reason than the driver should have slowed down at the very least.  Had I been sighted,

perhaps I could’ve seen him at the corner and been prepared; perhaps not.

I am married to a bus driver.  After chewing me out for not calling him to pick us up (the thought never once occurred to either of us), the first question

out of his mouth was, “Did you call in a complaint?”  I know how bus drivers are supposed to do their job, and that driver did not do it well, period.

All this to say, as a blind person I am very visible; most blind people are.  Glasses, canes, guide dogs, magnifiers, squinting at signage and sometimes

bumping into things make us, by our obvious difference, noticeable.  It is sometimes a source of aggravation to me, especially when people seem to think

that I am only defined by my blindness; sometimes a big help because I get to meet new people I wouldn’t otherwise get to meet.  It is unfortunate that

on that hot summer Saturday, two blind people seemed completely and utterly invisible to that bus driver.”

 

All in all, I’m deeply grateful for public transit. We’re lucky enough to have a reasonably efficient system in Edmonton, and for many folks, blind or sighted,  it’s a real gift. As I’ve shown, however, there is a certain amount of risk and hassle involved, and the results can be disastrous at times. Next time you take a bus, just be grateful that you haven’t gotten on the wrong one, groped a stranger’s intimate bits, or been dropped off on some random street you don’t know.

 

I know some other blindies out there have some juicy bus stories to tell. Share them in the comments below, so we can all have a laugh at (…I mean with…) you!