Before and After

When the seventh Assistance Dog Blog Carnival was announced I found myself in a minority: I got the theme straight away and I had an idea for what I wanted to post. Of course, as so often is the case with the ADBC I found that initial idea practically impossible to write. I didn’t expect the usual bout of Writer’s Block to be so profound since I was merely expanding on a topic I’ve touched on before, but after weeks of struggling to put fingers to keys I ended up missing the deadline completely

I think my difficulty with this post in specific was that I don’t like to dwell on the past. A lot of my childhood memories are not happy ones and a good portion of those are tied to my own mixed up method of coping with my blindness. In realizing that I also understood the most significant effect working with a guide dog has had on me: it’s healed me; I’ve grown to completely accept my blindness and I’m not haunted by the painful discomfort of my childhood.

As a child I was ostracized. My classmates made fun of how the nystagmus made my head shake; of how close I had to hold things to read; and basically any other thing they could think of. I didn’t understand my own limitations well enough to feel anything but shame for these huge differences that separated me from fitting in with the other kids. All I wanted was to be invisible and I did everything I could to not draw attention to myself.

Folded white caneThere’s a thin line between what I stubbornly refused to use because I didn’t want to and what I stubbornly refused to use because I didn’t need to. The white cane, for instance (pictured to the left) was a prime example of something that I really should have been making use of, but I didn’t regularly start using a cane until I was 16. Honestly, it’s a wonder I made it to 16 given how limited my vision is outdoors.

On the other hand, I really did not need the large print textbooks that were ordered for me every year. First, they weren’t convenient to use. They weighed a right ton and took up my entire desk when opened. Neither of which played well into my goal of invisibility. Second, I can read regular print! Other things like lighted magnifiers, monoculars, and telescopic glasses weren’t just alarming attention-grabbers, but just not all that useful for me. Except the general lack of understanding we all had about achromatopsia meant that my refusal was perceived as a misguided and stubborn refusal and for years I all but waged war with my TVI about what I would use, which was basically nothing.

So, it came as quite a shock to, well, everyone when I announced I was applying for a guide dog. I don’t think anyone knew how serious I was and I remember a distinct conversation with my father where he stated his opinion that my only interest in a guide dog stemmed from a friend getting her own. And, of course, I’d spent practically my entire life to this point doing everything I could to not draw attention to my blindness so the general feeling was that I didn’t need a guide dog. They were for totally blind people anyway, right? Even today I hear that same remark when, in fact, the number of totally blind people is very small. Most people who say they are blind — like me — can see something even if it’s only light. As far as vision goes, guide dog schools only require that the potential handler be legally blind.

The truth is I had wanted a guide dog since the moment I was first introduced to the concept. (Thank you, Sesame Street.) It wasn’t until I started to research schools that I fully understood how I met the requirements. I’m not proud to say that even though I had to affirm my need for and desire of a guide dog to my family as well as showcase my O&M skills for my application to a training school it took a few close calls before I really embraced using my white cane.

The thing is I can’t even blame it on being a sloppy or even poor cane user! Sure, I didn’t like using a cane. I disliked how it actively worked against my desire to be invisible. And not just because I was constantly whacking people in the shins! What it really came down to was that I still felt vulnerable. I wasn’t confident in what signals I got from the cane. I still found myself running into things I didn’t know were there. There was no real indication of whether a step was just a step or an entire flight of stairs. And, worst of all, while I was clearly noticeable with my cane no one seemed to respect my usage of it; I actually got hit by a car using my cane! Thankfully, they were going very slowly and merely knocked me on my rear, but it shook me up quite badly.

For me working with a guide dog is nothing like that. It was a difference that’s so pronounced that it wasn’t long into training with Dolly that I knew I could never go back. I was walking upright for the first time in my life, not hunched over, fruitlessly straining to see any toe trip in my path. I was finally able to walk at a pace I found comfortable, not cautiously stepping forward, trailing behind my friends and family. Most of all, I actually enjoyed working with my canine companion and we definitely were being noticed by, well, pretty much everyone. I wasn’t ashamed that I needed to utilize a mobility aid and I found myself happily chatting about her to complete strangers like a parent would gush about their children.

One of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do was leave Dolly after three weeks of training so she could recuperate from her warty feet. I felt like a new person in so many ways after our short time working together, but I had to go home and spend a month relying on my cane once again. Perhaps it was just my own hatred of this lot I’d been given, but I think it only reinforced the general feeling my family had that I really didn’t need a guide dog or even more that I wouldn’t fully utilize her. But whether bystanders noticed right away or not, I fell right back into working with a guide dog like I’d been doing it my entire life.

Working with a guide dog is truly a life decision. Over the years it’s presented its own hardships and stresses. And there are times I find it the most frustrating aspect of my life. But I have absolutely no regrets. I’ve had the wonderful privilege of having three terrific partners to share my life with and each of them has reaffirmed how much better my life has been since I first picked up a harness handle.

Comments

  1. Hi Cyndy, I’m a mother of a 3 year old with Achromatopsia and I have been enjoying your blog for some time now. I really appreciate posts such as this where you talk about your experiences of growing up. You are helping me to think about how to help and support Charlotte through the different stages of her childhood and to remember that she will have to take her own journey through her life. Many thanks. Cathy

    • Hi Cathy! I’m quite honored to hear you’re finding some use out of my blog posts. I do intend to write more about growing up and living with achromatopsia in the future, though, I admit I’ve been lax on that first part because for a long time those memories were just not fun to think about since they were not always very pleasant years of my life for a great variety of reasons. But in any case, I’m glad to know that others can take something from all of that.

  2. This was such a powerful post, Cyndy. Thank you so much for sharing these experiences. I had no idea about how growing up was for you. I have only known you since you’e a seasoned guide dog partner and always come across so confident to me. I appreciate getting to know more about you.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Sharon.

      It’s an odd thing for me to think back on those years sometimes. As I said in the above comment a lot of my childhood is tinged with painful memories and while I’ve come to accept and move passed it, I don’t often dwell on them. But I admit it is a bit refreshing to think of where I am now in comparison. Especially if someone else can take away something from it.

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