What It’s Like: Having A Guide Dog

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about what using a white cane was like. I said it was like navigating by frustration, though my inner critic is kicking itself for not coining the term “navigation by frustration”. Oh, well.

If using a white cane is navigation by frustration, then using a guide dog is like navigation by adoration.

To get a guide dog, you first have to be skilled in orientation and mobility. Basicly, you already need to know how to get around independantly. That’s important, because while a dog can make simple decisions, you’re the one who has to tell it where to go.

There are many schools all over the world, and they have different requirements, but that one is pretty standard. I got mine from Guide Dogs of Canada. I had to fly out to Ontario for a month and train, and one day I’ll likely write more about that experience, but for now just know that it does take some intense training to learn how to be a guide dog handler. Part of that is learning the commands, but part of it is also learning to trust your companion.

The basics of how it works is this: Every guide dog wears a harness. The harness has a long handle which you hold onto, putting the dog a bit ahead of you. You’re the one calling the shots, though. You tell the dog when to go forward, turn right or left, turn around and stop. Additionally, though, the dog is trained to make a few of those decisions on its own, and will automatically stop at stairs, curbs, doors and the like as well as veering right or left to get you around obstacles. As the dog walks forward, it puts a gentle pressure on the handle you’re holding onto, and you follow its lead.

The dog is also trained to know when to disobey an order. For instance, if you are wanting to cross the street and order the dog forward, but a car is coming, the dog will not obey.

Trust lays at the center of the relationship. You are trusting your dog to get you safely from point a to b, and the dog is trusting you to know what you’re doing. In that dog’s eyes, the two of you are a pack and you’re the leader of that pack, which is why I call it navigation by adoration. You and your partner are going to go everywhere together. Unlike a cane, the dog can’t just be tucked away on a shelf when not in use.

Having a guide dog has its disadvantages. For one thing, be prepared to be remembered more for your dog than for yourself, and often the dog will be greeted before you will be. Be prepared for clueless people to try to pat your dog at the most inopportune times, more on that below. Be prepared to have to take that dog outside in the worst of conditions. Blizzards and rainstorms don’t matter much if the dog has to go. And be prepared for facing the fact that you’re working with a dog, not a machine, and dogs aren’t perfect.

On the other hand, I found that having a dog gave me a lot more freedom than using a cane does. My cane can’t see anything. It doesn’t know where the door is. I did things with my dog that I’m not brave enough to do without him, because it felt much safer. I also had a constant companion who loved me unconditionally, even when I accidentally stepped on his paws.

I did mention above the problem of petting the dog. I know it’s tempting. They all just look so darned cute with their harnesses on, and there’s also the novelty of encountering a dog where you usually wouldn’t. Most of you do have the sense not to pat the dog when it’s actively working, at least, though I have experienced someone patting my dog while I was in the middle of crossing a road where it intersected with the highway. However, even if the dog is just sitting there at the feet of its handler on the bus, doing nothing, don’t pat the dog. That dog is trained to associate wearing the harness with being on duty, and to not seek out affection or attention while working. You patting the dog is a tiny crack in that training. If it happens enough, the dog will start to think that it’s okay to seek out attention. The only time it’s okay to pat a service animal is when the harness is off and its handler has given you permission.

I do miss having a guide dog. Perhaps someday, I’ll get another one, though for many reasons I’m not currently in a position where it would be a practical choice. But having one is absolutely fantastic. They are amazing animals.

Navigation by adoration is absolutely worth any of the disadvantages.

Want to follow or interact with me on social media? Find me on Twitter by following @jennifermorash or head over to https://www.facebook.com/jennifermorashblog. I post blogs every Wednesday.

What It’s Like: White Cane Use

Imagine for a moment, if you will, that you are standing in the middle of a room with a blindfold on. Moreover, you were wearing that thing when someone brought you in. A long stick that comes up to about your shoulder is pressed into your hand, and then you are left to feel your way around with just the stick.

Do you think you could do it?

Probably not, but to be fair neither could I the first time they handed me a white cane. There is a reason that government funding goes into mobility training. But what is it like?

Honestly, sometimes using the white cane is like navigating byfrustration. After all, hitting the cane against obstacles is basically how we find out that the obstacle is there. Hitting stuff is sort of the point. Constantly hitting stuff is also frustrating.

It works like this. You hold the cane at one end, which usually has a rubber grip on it to make keeping hold of it easier. The cane is extended forward and down with the tip either touching the ground or just above it, depending on the sort of canetip you are using. You then swing the cane from side to side in an arc in front of you as you walk. As your right foot is stepping forward, the cane swings left and vice versa, checking for things in your way. For those who swing without touching the ground, you do need to contact the ground at each end of the swing to make sure the ground is, you know, still there. But some canes, such as mine, have little rolly tips, so the end of the cane stays in contact with the ground. I prefer it, you find a lot of low to the ground obstacles like power cords that way.

However. No matter how good you are, you are going to find cracks or potholes to jam your cane into, which tends to result in a quick jab to the stomach from the top of the cane. Granted, that happens a lot more when starting out, but it still happens with experience. In winter, that cane is going to lodge itself into a snow bank at least once per season, usually more. You are going to splash that sucker into mud puddles. You are going to encounter an obstacle while distracted and have the cane slapped out of your hand.

Like I said, it is like navigating by frustration. But it isn’t all bad. The more you use it, the more you can pick up along that length of white aluminum. I can tell what sort of floor I’m on, and when it’s about to change. I can tell when the surface is starting to slope up or down. I can tell how solid an object I’ve just discovered is.

The cane isn’t perfect, and the cane can’t help much with actual orientation, but you need to be able to use one if yu want to learn how to orient yourself. And if you want a service dog, you absolutely need the cane skills first.

Navigating by frustration isn’t all bad.

Just a final post script note: this post only represents my own thoughts and feelings, not those of the blind community as a whole.

Want to follow or interact with me on social media? Find me on Twitter by following @jennifermorash or head over to https://www.facebook.com/jennifermorashblog. I post blogs every Wednesday.

What It’s Like: Watching Television

Watching television seems like such a visual thing to do. After all, we do call it watching, don’t we? For the most part, for most people, it is a visual experience.

But where does that leave those of us who can’t see the screen, or who have difficulty making out the details? Are we marooned in a televisionless world? Or stuck only understanding a small portion of the program?

In short, what is it like for me to watch television as a blind person?

If you want to be purely pedantic, I don’t watch television. For one thing, I can’t watch anything in a literal sense, and for another… I don’t actually own a television.

I do own a laptop and a smartphone, though, and do subscribe to streaming services.

We are now in a time and place where it is easier and easier for someone like me to enjoy shows to nearly the same degree as sighted people do, especially where streaming services are concerned. For years now, closed captionning has been a thing that has allowed the hearing impaired to follow such things. Audio description is now catching up.

Audio description is basically a track laid over the program with a narrator describing the action and setting between moments of dialogue. It isn’t perfect, but it’s usually good enough to get the idea across. And streaming services seem to be leading the charge. I have tried Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus (though am not currently subscribed to all three). Of the three, Netflix and Disney are the ones I have the most experience with, and these days, any original programming either has offered up has audio description. Disney Plus, as a much more recent offering, can claim to have done this from the start but Netflix gets the credit for beginning the trend. Starting back when their Daredevil series began, every series and movie they have created has come with audio description, and no, it isn’t lost on me that they chose the show with the blind protagonist to begin this.

Now, it’s on everything. Even their standup comedy specials have it, though to be honest I find it distracting in that one instance. Mostly, though, it’s awesome. And sometimes unintentionally hilarious, such as the time when the narrator dramatically announced that Daredevil (a blind man, I will remind you) “walks away and doesn’t look back.” Of course he doesn’t look back, he can’t. But mostly, yes, it’s awesome.

But what about the shows that aren’t created by/for the platform? Those, unfortunately, tend not to come with audio description when they stream, though some do have it when watched on their originating television channels. So can I still watch them?

Yes. Mostly, I can still follow those stories. You would be surprised how much you can get from sound effects and dialogue.

For instance, Doctor Who does not have audio description. Or at least, it doesn’t the way I consume it. It is the only show that I outright buy, as it is no longer on Netflix but I still love it and want to follow it, so I buy it on itunes. That show has always been particularly good at conveying what is actually happening through sound and dialogue. Right now, with its current cast of characters, I hear a common complaint that one or two characters tend to state the obvious. “Look, a big plane” or the like. It probably is annoying for most of you. For me, though, it’s awesome. I know that there is a big plane. But failing anything that obvious, the sound of a jet engine is fairly distinctive. As is the sound of planes taking off, which would have already told me we were at an airfield. True, I sometimes miss some details, but I have almost never been left unsure what was happening as a whole.

I’m not going to try to claim that it is just as easy for me to consume visual media as it is for most people. I have to take an extra step here and there, and I do have to concentrate a bit more. I do miss some things. However, I do get just as much enjoyment out of it, and now you know how.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and find something to not actually watch.

Want to follow or interact with me on social media? Find me on Twitter by following @jennifermorash or head over to https://www.facebook.com/jennifermorashblog. I post blogs every Wednesday.