This is one of those posts that’s been sitting in draft for ages. I had wanted to get it up in May, but that seemed too sad. Then I figured I’d get it up around our anniversary, which might have worked had I kept the dates straight.1 And most recently I thought I would finish this for the fourth ADBC. Instead I wrote about transitioning to new guide dogs. Suffice it to say this is a long time coming so perhaps that’s why I still feel this isn’t quite finished. At the very least, I feel there is so much more I could write.
[The above slideshow showcases photos of Dolly, which you can also view here.]
I almost feel like I’m admitting to premature senility when I say that I have a difficult time remembering what it was like before working a guide dog. Many of the differences in my life between these two periods of my lifetime have evolved so slowly that I think I was at least partially unaware of the changes; while others were so rooted within the actual decision itself that they seem obvious to the point of forgetting that they actually are changes even though in many respects my life since is almost unrecognizable in comparison. The best way to explain this is to be completely honest about how I “dealt” with my own blindness and to do that I’ll take a moment to go off on a tangent of sorts.
Being that I was born blind, I think most people assume that there is no adjustment to my own disability. But, believe it or not, there was probably more adjustment needed on my end than my parents and others in my life. In many ways being born blind is just as much a psychological disability as it is a physical one. As a child your view of the world is pretty limited — very egocentric, to utilize a nice collegiate level word. I wasn’t officially diagnosed with achromatopsia until I was four and that isn’t really that strange. First, we’re talking almost three decades ago when testing for eyesight issues in children was not as common as it is today. Second, we were living on an Air Force Base and make what jokes you will, but the fact remains that those military doctors were not the best. Third, and most important, as a toddler I wasn’t able to communicate any difficulties I was having and so all my parents knew was that I could see something and all that walking into the coffee table kind of stuff was just me being exceptionally clumsy.2 Anyway, once I was diagnosed, my parents were now equipped with an explanation of my vision, but I had no more understanding of my inability to see than I was before being subjected to all those uncomfortable tests. All I really knew was that my parents told me I had to wear my glasses, so I wore my glasses because I was one of those shockingly rare children who actually listens to her parents. I eventually knew that I was legally blind, but I didn’t really know what that meant. To me it was just another description, like I had brown hair and brown eyes and I’m Korean.
My third grade teacher is the one who clued me in. And while it’s a momentous thing for me it was completely inadvertent on her part and were she to know how such a small thing turned my entire world upside down I expect she’d feel rather badly for it. I remember it very vividly. Our class was writing letters to pen pals and one of the important parts of the letters was that we had to reveal something unique about ourselves by asking a question. I had finished my letter and brought it up to my teacher for her to look over and I remember her remarking at how great it was and then adding in a line. As I walked back to my seat, I read what she had written: “Did you know that I’m legally blind?” I was completely baffled at the time. I couldn’t figure out how this was remotely important or why anyone would care. It took awhile — I’m not entirely sure how long exactly, it could have been several days or as soon as later that day — but eventually I realized that this “legally blind” thing was important. That it somehow separated me from other people and at some point the little hamster wheel in my head finally clicked into place and I had the epiphany that I didn’t see like other people. Not even those other people who wore glasses!
Except the last thing in the world you want to be when you’re eight is different than other people. So, I spent the next eight years trying to be as not blind as possible. Or more accurately I did whatever I could to not draw attention to myself. I can’t say it was a fully conscious decision because that would mean I gave any thought to it and I’m sure if I had I would have quickly understood how futile — even dangerous — these actions would be. But the truth is some of this was simply because a lot of the adaptive aids I was being told to use were inconvenient and unnecessary, like the gigantic large print textbooks. But a lot of it was pure stubbornness, like refusing to wear my sunglasses or use my white cane. I honestly don’t know how I managed to make it to sixteen!
At sixteen two things happened that forced me to evaluate how I was living my life. I went to Spain as a foreign exchange student. I wouldn’t have admitted it unless you tortured me, but I was aware of how much I faked what I could see and I knew I wouldn’t be able to pull that off in a totally different country that I was completely unfamiliar with so I made sure to bring my white cane with me. It was the first time in my life I consistently used my cane and mostly it left me feeling like it was a completely useless mobility aid. I didn’t feel any more secure traveling when using the cane than I did without it. I did start using my cane a bit more after the trip, but then the second thing happened: I got hit by a car. Thankfully, it was little more than a bump by the car — it knocked me on my ass, but I wasn’t hurt. Though, it did solidify my insecurity with using a cane because I had done everything correctly when crossing the street and clearly I was still vulnerable.
I didn’t tell anyone about being hit by the car — the driver had sworn at me and drove off anyhow, so it would have probably only served to make my parents paranoid. But I went straight home and started researching guide dog schools. The extent of my knowledge of guide dogs at that point mostly revolved around two short clips I had seen on Sesame Street when I was six. I spent the next two years soaking up every little shred of information I could get about guide dogs and training programs. I am fairly sure that every guide dog handler I met during those two years thought I was the most annoying person on the face of the Earth because I was relentless with my questions. Basically, I was obsessed. I was also scared out of my mind because the first step for me to get a guide dog was to tell my family that I was interested in doing so. And to do that I had to admit how I’d basically spent my entire life leading them on in terms of what I could really see.
That step was not only one of the most important moments of my life, but the most profound difference that Dolly brought to my life. Being secure in your blindness is very important if you are a guide dog handler because you are now traveling with the most visible and recognizable sign of blindness there is. Not only that, but the public tends to view that “sign” as an invitation to question you and often they are quite tactless in their methods. Whatever your feelings on such attention are, it’s pretty much unavoidable and for me I found it a necessary progression in becoming comfortable enough with myself that I wasn’t trying to hide. I’m fairly certain that all the time I spent trying not to draw attention to myself only brought more awareness of my being blind, but with Dolly’s constant presence any possibility of staving off attention was now completely nixed. I’m certainly more comfortable discussing being blind now than I was as a child, but I can’t say I enjoy the public’s interest. Especially when they are blatantly interrupting me from something or incredibly rude about it. It’s been more than 13 years and I’m still working on being more zen.
To me, the more obvious difference that Dolly brought to my life was that I discovered a new confidence in traveling independently. I realized that I had developed a habit of walking hunched to watch where my feet were and suddenly I was walking with my back straight and not gazing in vein down at my feet, hoping to avoid any obstacles or hazards. I wasn’t trying to strain my eyes to determine if every shadow that crossed my visual field was something I might walk into. (In fact, I eventually developed a new habit of walking with my eyes closed outside!) I also discovered how traumatized I had become at even the simplest intersections. I had stopped trusting my own orientation and mobility training and was paranoid of any possibility that a car would turn in on me. Now I had confirmation that I was safe to cross a street and a working pair of eyes to notice any surprise vehicles.
The devastating part of this was that I broke most of these old habits during training and then had to go home for three weeks without Dolly because she got sick! I was beyond the ability to form words to explain how traumatizing and difficult this was for me at the time. I resented it at the time, but I think it was actually good for me to have those three weeks without a guide dog once more to confirm how beneficial working one would be for me. Even without her by my side I found that I had already developed a greater ease in, well, being blind around people. I hadn’t realized until then how often I second guessed myself in certain actions or avoided situations that would pointedly showcase how little I could see.
While not a characteristic that I’m readily described as, there are situations where I can be incredibly shy. To this day I don’t like being in crowds of people — even if it’s a crowd of people I know. And I am very uncomfortable as the center of attention. But for as much of an extrovert as I’m usually considered, it really wasn’t until Dolly entered my life that being able to just talk to anyone was a skill I was equipped with. I still find it slightly disorienting when complete strangers walk up and just start talking to me, even when it’s about the dog. But I’ve had years of practice now and while I think most of it is being faked on my part, I’m convincing enough that it’s almost an action that comes without thought. There are times that the dogs are icebreakers into what would otherwise be very awkward conversations. And there is at least one instance where I made a friend — and at one point a boyfriend — through an initial conversation about Dolly.
Without a doubt there are other, smaller differences that Dolly brought to my life. By her very presence in my life, she forced me to be that much more responsible. I became more organized in many aspects of my life because I had to plan around her needs. But mostly, she brought this intangible lightness to my life. She was the happiest dog ever! Even in her more grumpy moments when she would wear this exasperated look that spoke to the world of her constant suffering at my hand, she still brought a sense of levity to pretty much every situation. It never ceased to brighten my day and in some respects I think it was even calming.
She will forever have a special place in my heart for all that she brought to my life.