Dead Ends: 6 Battles I Refuse To Fight

I’m a fan of healthy debate, and since I can see grey in just about every conceivable area, I’m all for engaging with everyone about nearly every topic. However, I’m finding it progressively less useful to engage with certain types of people, who continue to pick fights with others about debates that should, in my opinion at least, have been retired long since. Some perspectives are simply too antiquated, inaccurate, or unconstructive to be worth examination, and today I’ll present a few of the arguments I’ve promised myself I will never become embroiled in again. Part of a healthy lifestyle is knowing which battles to fight and which are lost causes, and this is a list of arguments I believe we need to put to bed, once and for all.

1. Cane versus guide dog: travel is intensely personal, and any cane vs. guide dog debate needs to account for individual preferences, needs, and abilities. Guide dogs offer numerous advantages, but they are not the only efficient mobility tool. Some blind people don’t like dogs, dislike guide dog travel, feel more confident with a cane, and/or are unable to afford a dog. Additionally, canes offer their own advantages. You don’t need to feed, relieve, or plan your schedule around a cane’s needs, and the cane provides tactile feedback some blind travellers, like me, consider essential. So, however you might feel about it, please stop arguing with people about which is better. Instead, focus on the advantages and disadvantages of both, leaving it up to each blind person to decide for themselves. Blanket statements and definitive answers simply aren’t useful, so there’s no point in resorting to them.
2. The duty to educate: I have always valued my ability to educate able people, and am usually open to answering questions and spreading accurate information. Education is one of the primary purposes my blog exists, and was the original reason I began it at all. I don’t align myself with those who insist it is every disabled person’s duty to educate, though. If you enjoy it, and find yourself routinely annoyed by people’s ignorance, then you should certainly raise awareness and answer as many questions as you’d like. If you’re more concerned with going about your business unencumbered by other people’s curiosity, or if you just don’t like putting yourself or your ideas out there, by all means refrain from doing so. Ultimately, you are the only one who should dictate how you spend your time, so I hope people will eventually stop squabbling about duty and purpose and obligation.
3. Public versus mainstream education: I spent grade school and postsecondary school in mainstream education—that is to say, I attended publicly funded institutions and did not generally receive specialized education tailored to blind students. The only school for the blind in my country was too far away to be a viable option, and in any case I preferred to be integrated into the sighted world as much as possible. I’ve heard horror stories about schools for the blind. People talk about lowered academic standards, inadequate enforcement of social skills, abuse that went unchecked, and a serious lack of encouragement when it came to helping blind people prepare for independent living. By contrast, I’ve heard other students praise their schools, having learned valuable skills mainstream schools usually cannot teach, and being among people who understood them and their struggles intimately. My own experiences with public school were mixed. I had to balance the benefits of inclusion with the severe lack of resources my rural school was able to procure. All in all, I don’t think it’s useful or wise to argue back and forth about which type of education is objectively better. The reality is that the subject is too varied and too personal to debate properly, so while it’s fair enough to pick apart the merits of specific institutions, making general statements demonstrates a disregard for nuance that seldom does any good.
4. Sighted versus blind partners: I covered this topic extensively in previous posts, and that’s the last I really want to say on the matter. It’s all very well to discuss the merits of dating both types of partners. Blind partners are able to understand us on a gut level, which can be enormously comforting. Sighted partners are typically able to provide assistance, such as driving us around and helping us navigate unfamiliar areas, which is an awfully nice perk. I fail to see the point of telling fellow disabled people whom they should date. Regardless of personal preference, we shouldn’t be meddling in anyone else’s love life. Let people exercise agency, because goodness knows able people love to badger us as it is. Promote freedom of choice, and otherwise keep your nose out of other people’s romantic lives.
5. Language policing: this is another topic I’ve covered before, and once again, it’s an argument I refuse to revisit. It’s one thing to be sensitive to other people’s wishes and keep up with the evolution of language, but when you are describing yourself, do so however you see fit. No one—and I do mean no one—has any right to insist you should change or criticize you for using incorrect labels. You are in charge of your self-concept and identity. Don’t let anyone convince you that you’re “doing it wrong.” Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but that doesn’t mean you have to listen.
6. Doing blindness the right way: there is no such thing as “doing blindness wrong.” Really, there isn’t. There are harmful behaviours and unwise practices, but disability is just a personal trait. Just as there’s no right or wrong way to be queer or female, there’s no wrong way to be blind. That doesn’t mean you’re above reproach and should be insulated from criticism; part of a community’s job is to watch out for each other and call each other out, but anyone who tries to claim there’s only one way to live this life is hopelessly narrow-minded. They can share their definitions of a life properly lived, but you don’t have to care.


Do you find yourself sick to death of any dead-end arguments? Feel free to share them in the comments; I’d love to hear them.

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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.

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.

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.

Guest Post: Yes, I’m The One With The Dog

Today, we’re in for a bit of a treat. CrazyMusician, a guide dog user, will be discussing common myths about guide dog travel; she will also share the turmoil and chaos of the “first year from hell”. Since (as should be obvious by now) I’m not a guide dog person, I wanted the perspective of someone who is living it right now. The post is wonderful, so without further ado, I’ll let her do the talking.

 

As of August 31, 2014, I will have been partnered with my guide dog, Jenny, for one full year.  It has been rewarding, exhausting, freeing, and emotionally

draining.  We have struggled to form a strong partnership through blizzards, her bad habits, my frustration, and changes in food, training methods, collars,

employment, and home furniture arrangement.

 

Since having a guide dog is in many ways a large shift from using a cane, and since many dog-lovers think that all blind people should have them, I would

like to dispel several myths regarding guide dogs, handlers, and the partnership.

 

1) “A guide dog will make your life easier.”

This is probably the most frustrating and simplistic viewpoint.  While in many ways Jenny has made my life SO much easier – guiding me around unexpected

obstacles, construction, finding curbs on the far side of insanely busy streets, saving me from buses and cars running lights – she has also complicated

my life.  Packing for a trip involves more preparation than I would normally use for myself – does she have enough food? When/where is a good time/place

to take her outside? Do I have her blanket/bowls/water/toys?  Also, my cane has never once run full-tilt toward my husband, bent down to pick up a dropped

sandwich off the ground, or decided that it would be fun to insanely wag its tail at that dog across the street while knowing full well that it is NOT

playtime, resulting in an unhappy puppy across the street barking at it.

All this having been said, the extra preparation, training, and correction are a price I am willing to pay for the independence Jenny offers me.  She has

run me home in a blizzard, saved me from the path of an oncoming bus, and protected me from weird creepy people by letting out a loud bark (not a move

I encourage, but she’s quite selective about it).

 

2) “All guide dogs are fully trained”

Nothing could be further from the truth!  Guide dogs receive the basic overarching training – working in traffic, socialization, food refusal, etc. – but

once the training class is over, the real crash course begins. It is up to the handler to maintain the dog’s training, as well as to teach the dog any

new things the handler would like the dog to do.

Several months after completing training, I was at a really low point with Jenny. She seemed incredibly distracted, walking me into things, scrounging

at anything and everything… I just didn’t know what to do.  Almost all my friends who had guide dogs were still on their first dog and had worked with

them for more than five years, and all of them told me that “their dog never did that.”  I was so discouraged because I thought there was something seriously

wrong with me or my dog.  Then I met someone who was on his third dog.  He asked how things were going with Jenny, and I was just so discouraged that I

told him everything, even uttering the words, “I am seriously thinking about sending her back.”

I remember his words clearly: “the first year is hell; she’s testing you to see what she can get away with.”  He also told me that my feelings of discouragement,

frustration, and even squelched hope were completely normal; I just had to be consistent and let her know what behaviors were acceptable and which ones

weren’t.  Even now, nearly six months later, I still tear up at the immense relief that I felt; there was nothing wrong with my dog or with me… and yes,

things have gotten loads better!

** A caveat here: if you are struggling with these feelings and your dog is doing things that are blatantly unsafe (guiding toward traffic, for example),

it is essential to consult your school for tips, pointers, and a followup visit if necessary.  Your perceived independence is not more valuable than your

very life.

 

3) (along these same lines) “Guide dogs don’t make mistakes”

Yes, they do!

One of the most helpful things my trainer told me was this: “Jenny is a DOG. She is smart, willing/able to learn, but at the end of the day, she is a DOG!”

Dogs will have bad days, just like people, be grumpy, disoriented, sleepy, etc.

It’s always funny when we’re out in public in an unfamiliar area, and I give Jenny directions. If she’s confused, she exhibits certain behaviors, so I

repeat the command.  I can’t tell you the number of times someone has asked, “still in training?” I’ve started to laugh and say “Always!” I liken it to

having children: They learn something, but occasionally they’ll forget and you have to teach them about telling the truth or sharing their toys all over

 

4) General catch-all: Questions/comments that drive me crazy!

A. “You have such a great companion!” – if I wanted a companion, I’d get a little dog that I can carry in my purse. Comments like these demean the partnership,

training and skill involved in the work Jenny does.

B. “Can I pet your dog?” – I am fairly lucky that I get asked this question, rather than having people just reach out and pet her.  As such, despite my

annoyance, I am always polite at this question and say something along the lines of “Thank you so much for asking.”  This reinforces the idea that asking

is OK, but reaching out and petting isn’t.

C. “What’s your dog’s name?” – I don’t give this out, period.

D. “Still in training?” – see point #3 above. I’ve got a friend who’s had her dog for 6 years and still gets asked this question.

 

I did not expect to love having a guide dog as much as I do. Even now, after a bad day, I remember all the awesome things that Jenny has done and will

do in the years to come.  Jenny will get up, do some insanely flexible “doggie yoga” pose, wag her tail; I will hold out the harness as she shoves her

head through it, tail still wagging, and we are off to conquer the world.