Image of a Labrador Guide Dog

How Much Is That Guide Dog In The Window

Shoulders back, drop your arm, soften your fingers, lengthen your torso, head up, feet together and most importantly relax, my instructor says, breathing out on that last word and chuckling at my awkwardness. It feels more like a ballet lesson with its graceful movements, flourishing gestures, precise foot positioning and adherence to protocol than a beginner’s class in mobility. I laugh nervously as I attempt to unwind my reluctant body into a more natural and sleek shape against the backdrop of my brand new guide dog.

It’s a moment in time I thought and wished I’d never have to deal with. But here I am, wondering less about how it came to this and more about how it isn’t as earth shattering, soul destroying, dignity stealing and self-sacrificing as I’d expected. In other words, how come I’m still breathing? And why hasn’t the sky fallen in “Henny Penny” style as I’ve always predicted if this day ever came?

I’d taken delivery of my new mobility device three days earlier. From those first few seconds, with that first handful of treats I proffered as a welcome to my world gift, under the watchful eye of my instructor, I knew my perspective regarding handling a guide dog would be forever changed. I’d been surprised at the peaceful sense of calm and certainty surrounding her as I squatted down to say hello.

This was something solid, just like me, I thought as I took in the physicality of her being. This was not the flat, dimensionless symbol of personal failure and betrayal I’d always imagined she would be. It seemed strange to be welcoming an animal into our home as opposed to my falling through the cracks in the earth into a pit of brimstone and fire. I kept waiting for the sacrifice, the screaming and the snarling snake-like judgements, but they never came.

Life seemed to go on around us, oblivious to the seismic shift within my narrative. Birds sang, people spoke and clouds hovered. Then we took her inside. It was as simple and as complicated as that. There was nothing much else to be said apart from some brief explanations by my instructor as to how to feed, toilet and take care of her over the weekend, and he would see us soon.

A risky move on his part, I thought as he sashayed out the door with a cheeky grin. But I can’t even keep a pot plant alive, I called after him, the panic rising in my throat. Thank God my husband is a pet person. I breathed deeply as I turned to face him with a what happens now look. She’s your dog, he said matter-of-factly. How about you give her a pat.

I’d always viewed a guide dog as an option of last resort I would never have to consider, let alone make room for in my life. Because surely if I did, it would mean that I’d failed. I had failed to navigate and orientate myself independently within the built environment – an environment I have forever prided myself on being able to cope within despite its hard edges, unforgiving attitude and ultimate inaccessibility.

Actually, by “coped” I really mean barely survived, excused, been humiliated by, secretly hated, often avoided, resented and railed against for my entire life. I always thought it was me who had to try harder, do better, be braver and pay more attention, and not the environment or the people who build it which needed to be more flexible, inclusive and accommodating. Because of course, like any well indoctrinated person with disability in the mainstream, I’ve bought that the onus is all on me to fit in, feel good and face the often insurmountable obstacles of the built environment without question. Because to question it again implies my failure to overcome it, succeed or find a way as I’m supposed to according to disability mythology and ableist expectation.

Therefore, to be standing in my driveway with a guide dog by my side is confronting, because it forces me to truly examine just how exhausted, desperate and broken I am. A fact which is only reinforced by my uncomfortable relief at the situation. I know if I hadn’t played every other alternative in my bag of tricks, not limited to but including risky eye surgery two years earlier, I wouldn’t be here. I would not have ever so reluctantly taken a guide dog trial walk twelve months ago, chased up my paper work twice after being lost in transit, handed the intimate details of my close family relationships and daily routines to a government agency or emailed question on top of concern, like a layer cake of anxiety to my instructor regarding my potential handlership as I waited for a suitable match.

Dissimilar to buying a robot vacuum cleaner or washing machine, a guide dog partnership doesn’t roll off an assembly line the way people may assume. Following extensive training at a cost of around fifty thousand dollars, a guide dog match is based on all sorts of criteria including the temperament of each individual guide dog and respective handler, walking speed, lifestyle, ability and expectation. For example, I am fairly fast paced in terms of mobility and thought, therefore I want a dog who is also fast, takes the initiative and is a little bit tempestuous.

Unlike the suggestions and declarations by popular culture, I don’t need the companionship or emotional support an animal naturally provides. What I require is a guide dog who works with purpose, makes decisions and moves like the wind. Not to mention has to be good with kids, have zero food distraction and knows how to blend into a crowd.

What tipped me over the edge was when my daughter began to worry, even when sitting in her pram, that I would run into the pole she and her daddy had just passed, or when she’d tell me as we lay in bed at night how fearful she was of my getting run over by a car. This, to be honest, is baffling, because I’ve never been anything but careful, confident and professional when crossing a road, either with or without her, so I’m at a loss as to where this came from. Granted, she’s seen me run into the odd pole, cafe chair, a-frame, tree and person, but never a vehicle.

As a toddler, then as a preschooler, she’s always loved to press lift buttons, find doorways, lead me to the bananas and choose the milk, but I never ever want her to think or feel that she has to do these things because her mummy cannot. Thus my taking the significant step of acquiring a guide dog, who unlike a traditional white mobility cane, which can be folded up and discretely put in my funky handbag when not in use, is always going to be out there for the world to leer and like in almost equal measure.

I know that by assuming the role of guide dog handler I’m opening myself up to all sorts of bias, discrimination, decisions and opinions that I would not otherwise be privy to or a part of if I were to remain exclusively a white mobility cane user. But on the other hand, I’m opening myself up to new ways of moving within the built environment, which should in theory trickle through my life indirectly, thereby maybe just maybe making the conspicuousness worth it.

My best friend recently told me she thought I “lived big”. By this she meant I didn’t shrink away from travelling or trying new things. However, it wasn’t a compliment I could accept. I lost my sense of adventure and abandon decades ago, somewhere around the point when three days before leaving to backpack around Australia, it occurred to me in what I can only describe as a devastatingly shocking moment of clarity and personal mortification that I couldn’t even find the entrance to my local youth hostel, let alone somewhere I hadn’t ever been before. So how the hell was I going to manage the logistics of travelling by myself the way the cool kids did? The realisation of my very real and all too often denied, glossed over, or glamourised vulnerability broke me in two that day, and I’ve never recovered. Instead, I quietly unpacked my bag, returned my equipment, miraculously managed to renew the lease on my flat and pretended the whole incident never happened.

All I heard through the filter of my self-criticism as our conversation unfurled is all the other things I don’t do due to my disability quite literally getting the better of me. Good God, I thought, if only she knew all the things I would do if I had the faculty of sight.

Walking into a room full of strangers would not be a problem. I could locate the entrance as a matter of course rather than a rigorous, risky act of remembering, listening or feeling for its exact whereabouts. I could make eye contact, smile across a room, find a chair, read a sign and pour my water, all without having to strategise too deeply or obliterate my cognition in the process.

I cannot count how many times I’ve wanted to go somewhere, and the reason I’ve not is because I literally cannot find the entrance, the escalator or the amenities. For me, the problem isn’t the big directions such as streets and avenues. I’m great at mentally mapping how many roads I need to cross or where to turn left then right then identifying the courtyard halfway along.

In fact, my sense of direction far surpasses that of my sighted husband, even when we’re in the car travelling at speed. It’s not unusual for me to know where we are or how to get there when he does not, and this is a quirk I take particular joy in reminding him of at every opportunity.

However, it’s always the last five metres and under which sends me into an orbit of worry and unattainability. For example, I think about which bollards I need to avoid on my way to work and which angles I need to take when going to my local shopping centre before I’ve even left the house. Then I rehearse the twists, turns, veers and variants I may encounter on my way home, instead of immersing myself in the task immediate to hand.

As a person who is blind or has low vision, I don’t have the luxury or privilege of taking wayfinding in the built environment for granted. I always need something left in reserve in case it all goes wrong. Quite frankly, it’s exhausting. Even the idea of leaving anywhere can be enough to have me in tears some days, because the emotional cost of negotiating the demands of a busy built environment are just too high.

For example, I have a meeting coming up in several weeks in a location I’m not familiar with, and already I’m beginning to fret and visualise my route of travel. Is it that first building on the left after the laneway, or the third? I can’t quite remember. And what about the construction, the scaffolding and the unpredictability of the area? All these things I need to take into consideration as I contemplate my investment. Do I really need to go? What will it offer me in return for the sacrifices I’ll make in order to be present, be it to my dignity, my time, my encounters, or in this specific case my career? In other words, is it worth the loss of sleep or can I skip it and come out the other side unscathed?

But what about electronic maps and apps, I hear you ask. Well, I have news for you. Our smarter cityscapes aren’t as clever as you think. In fact, when it comes to accessibility, based on our history of digital platforms, we are destined to create more problems than we solve. This is evident by our ever increasing digital gap and the plethora of smart products on the market that are inaccurate, dysfunctional or just downright disabling courtesy of their lazy coding, design or implementation.

The truth is, the built environment is hard for anyone. But bring no vision or low vision into the mix and it’s a whole new level of difficult. Asking a stranger for help is an option which might seem viable from the outside. However, the very act of asking is just another micro-humiliation and reminder of my failure to function within a society that offers me crumbs off the table and expects a five course banquet from me in return?

Granted, I have had some amazing encounters with people when asking for wayfinding advice. But the scales are heavily weighted in favour of being blatantly ignored, dismissed, deliberately misled, misused or abused. Therefore, it’s easier and sometimes safer not to ask. So much so that when it comes to taxi travel, I will set myself up whereby at no point in our interaction will my white mobility cane be visible. I will engineer the situation whereby I’m quite literally handed into the vehicle by one person, and handed out by another at my destination, because I simply don’t want the driver to know just how blind I am.

Similarly, when travelling on a train late at night, I won’t always have my white mobility cane in my hand for the duration of the journey, because when it gets a little rough and tumble, I feel more comfortable without its signal of disability on display. While in a restaurant or other public forum, I tuck my white mobility cane under my thigh or fold it up and put it away so I can enjoy my meal just as my contemporaries do, without incident or issue.

I know I can never hide my disability completely, but I can minimise its effects on other people, even if it is only for a moment. Sometimes I just don’t want to be noticed, seen, sought out or harassed because of my difference. Sometimes I simply want to mind my own business and pretend I’m just like everyone else, and not have to deal with the snide comments, condescending remarks, invasive questions, steely stares, curious looks or assumptions of my ability, capability or condition.

Obviously the presence of a guide dog totally blows that cover out of the water. I am likely to be refused entry into a taxi, ride share service, cafe or club regardless of what the legislation says, which just to be clear, is that working guide dogs are allowed anywhere without discrimination accept a zoo, operating theatre or a commercial kitchen. I am guaranteed to be accosted by parents looking to entertain their mid-tantrum toddler as if my mobility aid is a convenience. I am certain to be approached by a grief-stricken stranger who’s just lost their dog, and demands to pat mine. And don’t forget the passive-aggressive woman who thinks because she donates to a guide dog organisation, this buys her the right to distract my guide dog in return.

Alternatively, I will stumble into the obnoxious gaggle of construction workers who whistle at my dog as we navigate a temporary walk way just to see if she’ll come over. The chocolate shop assistant will touch my guide dog as I walk in the door before I can withdraw my consent, but won’t offer to find the product I’m after. The post office assistant will ask me to step aside in the middle of our transaction because the queue is too long, and the nail technicians will make me feel so unwelcome I walk out while my instructor watches in disbelief.

However, with each encounter I am expected to be courteous, educative and understanding, regardless of the effect of having to constantly defend or protect my guide dog against a tsunami of arrogance, ignorance and attack. So while others may wax lyrical about the majesty and magic of a guide dog, and the joy and difference it has made to their life, I am not that person. I am the person who sees it for the pooh-making, purse-emptying practicality that it is. It’s a mobility aid that helps me avoid obstacles, as opposed to my white mobility cane which only detects obstacles once contact is made. All I am doing is swapping one set of stresses out for another in the weak, watered down soup-like hope that somehow this might make a difference to how I navigate through the built environment.

There is a systemic misconception which is all too often perpetuated by all forms of media that infers a single sided relationship between a handler and their guide dog. It suggests guide dogs possess twinkly unicorn characteristics, thus defying all limitations of canine capability, allowing the dog to do all the work rendering the handler a passive by-stander in the relationship, and by extension, their own life. This misconception inadvertently compounds the helpless, incompetent, sad stereotype surrounding people who are blind or have low vision.

Ultimately it is my mobility and orientation skills that will get us into or out of any given situation. It may look like my guide dog does all of the work, but just like pulling a rabbit from a hat, it comes down to a combination of practice, skill and theatre. For example, she may find the pedestrian crossing, but I decide when it’s safe to cross. She may find the footpath, but I dictate our pace. She may stop at the stairs, but I choose if we take them.

Much like the art of dressage, handling a guide dog is subtle, rehearsed and dedicated. The longer we work together the easier it is to read the silent signals passing between us. However, right now I can’t imagine that being a possibility. For as she patiently waits while I adjust my body so we can begin our first training lesson, I wonder if I’ve made the wrong decision in receiving her. This will either work or it won’t. I fear each result equally. Each outcome is loaded with question and meaning in my mind, which is why I can’t afford to be anything but pragmatic about the situation.

Regardless of how I’m supposed to feel, or how soulful her eyes and shiny her coat, or how she stretches up onto my bed in the morning to say hello, lays quietly against me in a sunny spot, insists she’s hungry for a snack when she really isn’t, loses all my tennis balls, shares our mutual dislike for rain, or touches me with her wet nose in that special way that lets me know she loves me, this has to be as much about her well-being as it is mine. She’s gone through a rigorous and highly researched process to be here, and she deserves the best. What I don’t yet know is how she will eventually win me over with her extraordinary work ethic, cheeky personality and adventurous spirit. But that’s another story.

Posted in Diary Of A Blind Mama and tagged , , , , , .


Comments are closed.