In Praise of Those Who Share Their Wheels

Where I grew up, a five-minute drive (an hour’s walk) would take me to school, a post office, the nearest convenience store. Forty-five minutes in a car would get me to music lessons, assuming the weather cooperated. Two hours got me to the nearest city, where decent shopping could be found. Four hours got me all the way to Edmonton, for music competitions and specialized medical care. To get anywhere of consequence, I needed more than my two legs, and my legs were all I had.

Part and parcel of being a kid in a rural area was asking for rides—to the store, to extracurricular activities, to friends’ houses, to school, even, if you managed to miss the bus. We were all used to it, and all our parents were used to the asking. Many childhood memories involve being driven everywhere, through rain and snow and parental exhaustion. It was annoying to be so dependent, but we were all similarly needy, so it never chafed too badly.

Then, all around me, my friends and relatives began turning sixteen and getting their licences. Driving fever hit, and suddenly everyone was blasting forbidden music at top volume, speeding around in second-hand vehicles, thrilled with their new freedom. For the first time, getting where they needed to go was a matter of grabbing their keys and promising they’d be home by eleven.

Everyone but me, that is.

At sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, I was still hitching rides, especially when out of reach of a cab or bus. Visiting my family during the holidays meant convincing some kind soul to ferry me home. Getting to the hospital when I was too weak to rely on a cab driver meant calling everyone I could at inconvenient hours, asking the dreaded question through tears. Socializing with friends who lived on the outskirts of the city meant expecting them to drive half an hour out of their way, much of it through downtown traffic, for the dubious privilege of seeing me. My life, as a twenty-three-year-old urban dweller, is still influenced by my inability to drive. Asking for someone else’s wheels never gets easier, though it is routine and inevitable.

I could go on at some length about the ways being unable to drive makes life harder, more precarious, more difficult to plan, less convenient, less independent. Today, I’d rather focus on the people who answer yes, over and over. I want to honour the relatives, friends, and acquaintances who have driven in all weathers, at all hours, for all reasons. I want to highlight the kind stranger who, discovering me lost and bedraggled during a storm, drove me to my house without any thought of recompense. They have performed this service whether they felt like doing so or not. They have done so without expecting a return on their investment of time and gas money. They have done it, if not always without complaint, then with generosity. The music lessons and emergency medical appointments and shopping trips and singing engagements and social visits have all meant the world to me, and I owe that joy to the people who transported me there.

When someone asks for a ride because they have exhausted all other options, you know they desperately need it. You know it will improve their lives in ways large and small. You know that it is not usually easy for them to ask.

If you’ve been a frequent driver for others, know that you are valued, and needed, and appreciated. We may not always tell you so, but it’s no less true.

It’s easier than ever to travel without a vehicle, but there will probably always be a need for a kind soul with a car.

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Two Years of Paratransit: Sad Truths and Hard Lessons

I’ve been a paratransit user for almost two years, and I don’t like to talk about it.
The reason I keep relatively quiet about my paratransit use is that I understand the stigma that comes with being a frequent rider of the short bus. Assumptions are made about my supposed lack of self-respect. Pity and scorn flow freely from disabled people, many of whom are former (and to their thinking, emancipated) paratransit riders. Horror stories are dredged up from decades past, often third or fourth-hand and seeming more dramatic with every telling. Potential employers cringe.
Whatever you might think of paratransit services, the reality is that they exist, many people depend upon them, and until we live in a utopia where public transit is perfectly accessible and adequate mobility training is available to everyone, it’s going to keep existing. I’d prefer to focus on the ways it needs to improve, rather than insisting it needs to be eliminated.
Here are some uncomfortable truths and tough life lessons I’ve learned since becoming a regular paratransit passenger. Sharing these will, I hope, make for interesting reading. Beyond that, I hope this post will be engaging for those who have had similar experiences, and instructive to those who want to educate themselves about paratransit and the people who use it.
Disclaimer: Paratransit services can vary widely from location to location. My personal experiences may not reflect those of all passengers.

Personal Space? What Personal Space?

Paratransit services are typically designed for a vast range of clients. Some clients, like me, require very little assistance, while other clients need help with basic tasks like climbing into the vehicle and fastening seatbelts. Like many one-size-fits-all solutions, paratransit drivers are given training that isn’t able to address every possible situation. Drivers are often trained to assume clients are completely incapable, because not all clients can communicate how much assistance they need.

This means drivers will lean across me to fasten my seatbelt. They will place their hands on me to steer me into a seat. Occasionally, they’ll try to guide me in unwieldy ways: by the hand, by the shoulder, even by the waist. Once I make it clear I don’t need or want this assistance, most drivers back down and apologize, though the odd driver will argue. Even so, I routinely find myself physically handled in ways most people would find invasive, despite repeated assertions that I don’t want to be touched without prior consent.

While I recognize that this pattern is mostly the fault of training that tries to do too much for too many, it’s indescribably wearing to flex your advocacy muscles day after day–muscles you’d normally reserve for the general public. More than once, a fellow client has violated my personal space in ways that are wildly inappropriate, only to have drivers shrug and assure me I’m in no real danger. I’m not in the habit of fearing fellow disabled people, but that’s not of much comfort when someone is stroking your arm and tugging repeatedly on your hair.

Even though paratransit is a service built specifically for disabled people, it doesn’t always feel like a very safe one.

Nine Rings of Scheduling Hell

Coordinating the schedules of thousands of people is no mean feat, and I admire the staff that somehow manages to make it all come together. Much as I respect the complexity of the job, I can’t help but notice that my time is treated as elastic and unlimited. I book in such a way that I’m far too early, just to avoid being far too late. Trip-booking is a logistical nightmare, because:

  • The pickup window isn’t always based on when you want to arrive at your destination. In my city, it is based on when you want to be picked up. So, you have to estimate your travel time within a half hour window, and hope that estimate is accurate.
  • The current policy for the service I use states that a client can be kept in the vehicle up to 90 minutes. Depending on scheduling, weather, and traffic, it can take over an hour for a commute that would normally take about 15 minutes. Good luck planning around that.
  • If a driver picks you up after the half hour window has ended, they are considered “late.” However, “late” is a pointless distinction because drivers arrive when they arrive. A driver missing the end of your window just means you’ll be waiting as long as it takes, regardless of how time-sensitive your personal schedule might be.

Many clients who use paratransit have jobs. That means we need a practical scheduling system that allows us to have a reasonable amount of control over when we’ll be picked up and dropped off. Employers don’t appreciate unpredictable employees, and who can blame them? In my city, my trip to work is considered no more important than a trip to the mall, or to church, or to Starbucks.

The worst bit is the apparent bafflement and annoyance booking agents and dispatchers express when I insist that my time does matter. Shocked as they are that I don’t only go to church and medical appointments, there isn’t much regard for my time–and that disregard extends to many disabled people I know. For a group that already struggles to find and maintain employment, a service that doesn’t prioritize a working person’s time is one more needless barrier in a line of others.

Change Ruins Everything

Besides my job, whose schedule is quite rigid, I tend to lead a rather spontaneous life. I’ve always been an agile gal who didn’t mind sudden changes–until, of course, paratransit became part of my life.

Since my trips usually have to be booked several days in advance, and must be cancelled with at least two hours’ notice, paratransit is not ideal for someone with a dynamic lifestyle that is subject to change without much warning. This isn’t so much a flaw in the system as it is an unavoidable consequence of trying to make one service work for thousands of busy people. It’s understandable that paratransit wouldn’t be able to accommodate sudden schedule changes, and I’ve made my peace with that, making other arrangements for those times when I’m left without a ride.

But there’s a darker side to this issue. You see, for a service that is tailored to the needs of disabled people, paratransit is surprisingly unresponsive to some of our most basic needs. I have migraines and chronic pain, neither of which are in the habit of giving me 24 hours’ notice before they strike. Since I can’t always travel when dealing with severe pain or nausea, I find myself cancelling trips at the last minute more often than I’d like. Agents sometimes grumble, but once I explain, they don’t penalize me.

At one time, though, this was not the case in my city. A friend and inveterate paratransit user remembers a time when cancelling at the last minute was always penalized, regardless of the reason. Missing too many trips could result in suspension, which is a scary thought for people who rely on paratransit to take them to important appointments. It took considerable advocacy from the disability community to make the city realize that an inflexible service for people with disabilities made no sense whatsoever. Our lives are complicated, and we can’t always bully our bodies into cooperating with us. A service that doesn’t bake this reality into its policies serves no one.

Welcome to the Margins

I’ve always identified as a marginalized person, simply because having multiple disabilities seemed to place me well within that category. Not until I took paratransit did I get a glimpse of what being marginalized could look like. Every day, I meet clients who are so far on the fringes that it feels as though we occupy two different worlds. Some can’t communicate verbally, and struggle to make themselves understood when a driver goes the wrong way, or drives right past their house. Others love to chat, but are ignored or grudgingly tolerated by drivers and clients alike, whose patience and compassion have either eroded over time, or were never present at all. Still others are struggling with sudden injuries and medical crises that have permanently altered their lives. I’ve listened as clients howled with pain, trying to maneuver themselves into high vans and buses. I’ve heard seniors apologize profusely as the driver buckles their seatbelts, humiliation colouring their voices. I’ve sat quietly by, helpless, as a client tried in vain to engage their escort in conversation, each overture rejected. I’ve cringed in my seat as a nonverbal client screamed in pain, or distress, or some other violent emotion I couldn’t decipher, while the driver focused on the traffic ahead.

No doubt these clients live happy, fulfilling lives, and I’ve chatted with enough of them to know they are just as interesting, warm, and spirited as the rest of us.

But, in the confines of those vehicles, it can be hard to forget about the margins that hold them in place. It can be hard to get over the fact that I’ve ignored people like this myself, when having a bad day or feeling irritated by something else. It’s impossible to pretend I haven’t played a part in the marginalization of at least one of these people, out of fear or ignorance or a desire to be left alone. It’s hard, in other words, to praise the progress we’ve made when confronted so frequently with how far we still have to go.


There are many things I appreciate about paratransit. Door-to-door service means I feel safe, even in dangerous neighbourhoods. I can avoid pitted sidewalks and inaccessible areas. If I don’t know the route to my job interview or my doctor’s office, I can still get there. My abysmal outdoor mobility skills don’t completely constrain my life.

By and large, paratransit services appear to be run by compassionate people who really do care about managing it well. They want you to get the times you asked for. They care if they pick you up outside your window. They show empathy when you’re in pain, and they’re happy to help where they can.

Still, we mustn’t get complacent. Paratransit has many deeply-rooted problems, and since it fills service gaps for so many people, we need to fix what we have rather than tearing it all down in a fit of cynicism, or dismissing those who still use it.

Now that you’ve reached the end of this post, I hope you’ve offloaded a few assumptions and re-evaluated some stereotypes. I hope you know that there is no archetypal paratransit user. There is no typical use case. There is no neat, tidy template into which you can shove those of us who, for one reason or another, need a special service to get around.

Whether you’re a paratransit user, an employer, an educator, a social worker, or a paratransit staff member, I hope you come away with plenty to think about.

Got some thoughts to share? I think this post calls for a lively comments section, don’t you?

Trepidation and Triumph at CSUNATC2018

When an exceedingly kind friend offered to be my full-time sighted guide for 2018’s CSUNATC conference, I recognized that I was being offered a unique opportunity that could not, under any circumstances, be passed up. I’d spend a few days in idyllic San Diego, learning about accessible technology and basking in the company of a long-time friend whose social and tech savvy can’t be overstated. She promised to help me navigate the conference, escort me to presentations, and provide networking opportunities I’d struggle to obtain on my own. I was elated. I was grateful. I was excited!
I was also terrified.
You see, dear readers, the word “introvert” was coined specifically for me. While I enjoy a rich social circle and do well when representing employers at special events, high-energy occasions like conferences are about as frightening to me as a nest of angry wasps. In fact, if I have to attend a networking event outside of an employment context, I think I’d rather take the wasps, and that’s saying something. Excessive noise, bustling crowds, and unfamiliar environments combine to create a horrifying mix, and nothing but my relentless quest for self-improvement could make me brave it. (Meeting one of my best online friends helped sweeten the deal, but only slightly.)
I knew how fortunate I was to be attending CSUNATC2018, and I felt the appropriate level of eagerness, but part of me was sure I’d need several barrels of courage to manage. For if there is one thing that makes me more uncomfortable and cagey than large-scale, international networking events, it’s being around large numbers of blind people.
Yes, readers: I am afraid of blind people, especially when they get together, and attending CSUN would demand that I not only confront that fear head-on, but that I ask myself, finally, why the fear exists at all.
The gist is this: I went to CSUN to learn about tech. I learned a little, and certainly enjoyed the presentations, but most of the education had less to do with the accessibility world, and more to do with deeply-rooted insecurities so entrenched that I’d forgotten what it was like to question or even acknowledge them.
If you’re interested in my journey of self-discovery, stay with me. If you hoped to read all about promising new tech, I’m sure there are many excellent write-ups by people much better-versed on the subject. Either way, enjoy!

“Let’s play ‘count the blind people!’”

As we weave somewhat drunkenly through the airport, dragging unwieldy luggage and trying not to trample anyone, my sighted guide chatters blithely about how many blind people she sees going by.
“There’s another one! I think that’s the seventh I’ve seen already.”
“Oh God.”
“What?”
“I’m legitimately afraid of blind people. I mean, they’re okay in small groups, and I love them as individuals, but when we all get together, it’s … I just don’t like it.”
My friend is too gracious to pursue the matter, but it becomes obvious soon enough that my mobility demons, which I’d warned her of previously, are out in full force.
My cane grip must be all wrong. My posture, surely, couldn’t be close to proper. I’m leading with my right shoulder, which is a problem I’ve never been able to correct. Do I ride escalators in a weird way? Am I the only one who doesn’t know print numerals well enough to operate an elevator without brailled numbers? Does it show that I’ve received so little orientation and mobility training I’m not even sure if my rudimentary indoor travel technique is right? Is everyone judging me? Am I a fraud of a blind person?
Oh God, everyone’s definitely judging me.
I want to go home now.

“Let’s get oriented!”

I attend a small orientation tour to learn the hotel’s basic layout, reasoning that I’ll pick the information up more quickly if there aren’t too many people around me. But, as we meander along, passing various significant locations, I lapse into a fog of panic. There is no way one cursory jaunt around this massive hotel will tell me everything I need to know. The only orientation training I’ve ever received was highly specific and route-based, meaning it did not teach me how to master new environments through discovery. I have never wandered in my life—at least, not willingly. Getting lost for fun, exploring, taking a look around … these aren’t my style. Meanwhile, every blind person around me seems to have a mystical sixth sense or, if they are as lost as I am, it doesn’t trouble them. The atmosphere is effervescent, and I feel like an intrusive rain cloud that has accidentally splattered into an unsuspecting sun puddle.
What the hell am I doing here? Who do I think I’m kidding? This was not made for people like me.
I really want to go home.

“You’re not alone. Also, have a tissue.”

It’s been a long day, though for the most part a pleasant one. I’ve listened to enthusiastic Microsoft employees laying out a new and encouraging direction for Windows 10 and its associated accessibility features. I’ve attended a fascinating presentation on disability services departments in academic institutions. I’ve even discovered that the GPS app, Nearby Explorer, has innovative new features to facilitate indoor navigation. My sighted friend gives me sighted guide when I need it, introducing me to what feels like half the world along the way. She makes me sound like someone worth knowing, and I try to keep my impostor syndrome on a short leash. To my shock and delight, people admit to reading my blog—and liking it!
(So, it’s not just my mom and five friends? Cool!)
But now I sit, curled on my bed, offering the less flattering bits of my life story to complete strangers. One of them is an endlessly patient blind O & M instructor. I’m afraid of O & M instructors. (Are you sensing a pattern yet?)
They listen to me ramble despairingly about the inadequate skills training I’ve received; how out of place I feel among more competent blind people; how I am convinced I’m the only one who has ever been this useless at my age; how I must be a uniquely embarrassing failure; and how I’m afraid I will never, ever be anything more than I am right at this moment. In my self-effacement, I remain oddly verbose.
My equally patient sighted friend quietly passes me another tissue, putting her arm around me. This only makes me cry harder.
Then, the two compassionate blind strangers in my hotel room explain that they, too, have struggled. The instructor tells me that I’m far from alone, that it is possible for me to achieve the skill level I desperately want, and that I need not be so willing to let “I’m afraid” be what stands between the life I want and the life I have. Besides, she points out, plenty of blind people are where I am; they just choose not to put a fine point on it. For other blind people out there, the activities I find easy may seem like insurmountable challenges, and vice versa.
“Most of the people who intimidate you by going on about how good their skills are probably have something to hide.”
“I guess that does make sense.”
I plumb deeper, describing all the gaps between the talented and competent professional I know myself to be, and the bumbling wreck my brain insists I am. I was never taught to cut a steak in a way that made sense to me. I hold utensils in an unconventional way because the “normal” way has always felt clumsy. Sometimes, I simply don’t leave the house because the anxiety of existing in my skin is too much.
And, to my genuine shock, I am not alone in any of these things.
“But … why isn’t anyone talking about this?”
“We’re all too busy impressing each other, of course.”
“But I thought I was, like … degenerate.”
“No! You can be better. You can go higher. But you’re by no means the only one.”
“But I’m scared.”
“So was I.”
I am telling strangers the most intimate, shameful pieces of my long-buried trauma. I am exposing, to myself and to people I barely know, why I am so terrified of other blind people. I am opening up to unknown quantities in a way I’ve never done, not even with my friends, my family, myself.
Least of all myself!
And I am not afraid.
I am embarrassed and bemused and a little curious about what it is about conferences that fills you with the insatiable need to connect …
But Good God, I am not afraid.

“Just trust yourself.”

My default state, especially when dealing with new experiences, is “What do I know?”
Several times throughout the four days I spend at CSUN, my friend and I take a wrong turn of some sort, and something in the back of my mind insists we’ve made a mistake, gone the wrong way, gotten mixed up somewhere. Each time, I ignore it.
Each time, I am right.
Each time, my friend grows more playfully exasperated.
“Meagan, you should really try trusting yourself. You know things!”
“I just usually assume I don’t. Like, what do I know about this place?”
“You have good instincts, though. You should listen to them.”
Slowly, tentatively, I begin cataloguing the many instances over the years when my gut has stirred itself to alert me of some poor decision or wrong turn. In every case, if someone I perceived to be more knowledgeable than me disagreed, I became silent at once. Now, after more than a decade of systematic suppression, I don’t even consider speaking up.
Of course other blind people know more than I do.
Of course sighted people know where they’re going.
Of course I’m unqualified. Inexpert. Silly.
I can’t control the fact that I’m clueless about most things.
Or is this a choice I’ve made, one I forgot to unmake?
Is anyone telling me I’m useless, or have I been doing that to myself all along?
Heavy thoughts for a languid California afternoon!
But then, this does seem to be the week for them.

“Yes, it’s scary; and yes, you’re going to do it.”

Thump. Whir. Thump. Whir. Thump.
“What the hell is that?”
“That’s a door.”
“I don’t think we have these where I’m from…”
As it turns out, automatic revolving doors are much more frightening than they sound. Revolving doors are irritating enough; having once been stuck in one, I feel personally qualified to judge. The automated feature brings a whole new level of nightmare fuel, though, especially when you don’t have a clear understanding of how it works. All I could hear was an ominous thumping sound as the door thwacked repeatedly into something as it went round and round at what I considered an alarming speed.
I was open to trying it out, particularly since I was filled with new resolve and I had an O & M instructor with me once again. However, when she described the procedure, which involved me “sticking [my] hand in there so the door can hit it,” I balked a wee bit.
By “balked,” I mean I stood there for what must have been ten minutes, coming up with all the reasons I definitely could not—would not—attempt this.
Finally, I gathered all my courage and approached the door, only to have it hit me squarely in the face.
A little shell-shocked, hiding treacherous tears, I retreated and tried to regroup. Meanwhile, the O & M instructor, her blind friend, and my sighted friend stood by just as patiently as before, acting as cheerleaders and accountability officers in equal measure. Surrounded by all the (positive) pressure, I went for it.
As I leaned heavily on the door and followed it in a dizzying circle, one of my blind companions ran along behind me, shouting jubilant encouragement. It was rather like going on your first water slide, with your proud elder sibling shooting along behind you, utterly thrilled on your behalf.
Such a small thing, really, going through a door. Ridiculous, even. I’m twenty-three, for heaven’s sake. I’m an employed, educated, mostly-functional adult.
But that day, that damn door was everything.

“One more time before you go?”

On the day I was due to leave for home, I tried to cram as much as I could into a few too-short hours. I visited the exhibit hall, demoing a Braille tablet and expressing horror at how loud those new displays are getting. (I compared the scrolling sound to a very angry spider.) I met more people, flexed my extrovert muscles, and even handed out a resume to an accessibility company that was hiring overseas. Just to cap off the quintessential California experience, I drank a hellishly expensive juice blend and caught a few more rays of sun.
Feeling brave, I attempted to travel a little more independently, and promised a handful of new acquaintances I’d connect with them so I could share my writing and social media knowledge. This was a huge step forward, since I find it almost impossible to speak highly of myself outside of job interviews and cover letters.
Just as we were poised to leave the hotel, my sighted friend suggested I truly conquer that automatic revolving door, just to prove to myself I could.
It was tricky, and I grew progressively more nervous as concerned sighted people crowded around, hindering more than helping.
But, dear readers, I did it.
Twice.
Willingly.
As I came through the door the second time, more joyful than I felt was socially acceptable, my friend literally jumped up and down with sheer happiness, celebrating so loudly I could hear her through the door.
Most people might not understand why this tiny feat was important to me, and few people would appreciate the symbolism of it.
But she got it.
And, for the umpteenth time that week, I remembered: whatever I reveal, whatever I admit to, however I might struggle, I am not alone.
I never was.
And you know what?
Neither are you.

Guide Dogs For All? Maybe Not.

Ask just about any guide dog handler, and they will be happy to wax poetic about how much they love the experience. 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.
Since 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 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. While they may have adored their dogs and might not be opposed to trying again in future, they have come away feeling disillusioned, alienated and, in some cases, inadequate. Was it some failing of theirs that precipitated insurmountable issues? Could they have done more? Tried harder?
I want to tell the stories of just a few members of this underrepresented 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 handlers everywhere. I don’t seek to take anything away from happy guide dog teams, but I do want to lift the voices of people whose stories have, I believe, been neglected for far too long.

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. Her confidence was so deeply-ingrained that no other choice seemed viable, let alone wise. It was this belief, perhaps, that made her particular experience so devastating.
Once she completed high school, Alicia 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, the emotional and mental exhaustion brought on by so many simultaneous 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. 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 constant 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. The strain 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

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 it was overshadowed by 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 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 John’s apartment, where the 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. 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 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 quickly, leaving John with 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 liberating than they could ever have imagined, and they would never go back to any other mode of travel.
For others, 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 to ensure 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.

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.

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.

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.)