“Red” Flower

As iPhone photos go, I’m actually pretty happy with this one:

Red flower

The red isn’t quite right1, which is something of an issue with the iPhone camera in my experience. But oddly it is far closer to the actual color2 than I was able to achieve when taking the same photo with my Nikon. It’s the first time I’ve run into this issue since I made the leap to a DSLR. I intend to tinker some and see if I can’t pinpoint how to better capture these pretty flowers in front of my house.

  1. Yes, I can actually tell that despite my colorblindness.
  2. I’m told it’s more a burnt orange.

15 Years (and Then Some) of Learning

Ideally, this would have been posted last June to coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of partnering with my first guide dog. In fact, it was my intention to submit it for the twelfth ADBC. Months later, Brooke even tried to “help” me finally write this in the hopes that I’d participate in the thirteenth ADBC.

Collage of three black-and-white images of Yara, Dolly and Uschi in harness

Even though it seems to have gone by faster than it should have, fifteen years is a long time. Nearly half my life, in fact.

A lot has changed over that decade-and-a-half. I’ve changed a lot over that decade-and-a-half, which seems cliché but is nevertheless the truth. I’ve written about this previously, of course, and later expanded on the profound differences. But one thing I’ve not really stressed before is just how much I’ve learned as a guide dog handler.

The key things are probably the most obvious: I’ve learned about how to work with a guide dog, what a lifestyle change it involves, and the incredible life-changing effect it can provide. My knowledge of dog training has grown in leaps and bounds and evolved along with the differences that dog training has undergone since my time at Guiding Eyes. And with fifteen years experience as a handler, I have a better understanding of my specific needs and desires in a partner.

Over the years I’ve amassed a wealth of information about public access and discrimination due mostly to personal experience. Nothing on a grand scale by any means,1 but I have been more-or-less thrown out of a few stores, had a few issues with some restaurants, and met with a fair amount of discrimination when hunting for an apartment. My favorite incident is a rather hilarious story involving a liquor store that ended with me arguing with a policeman about NYS access laws.

I wasn’t even aware of how self-conscious I was about being blind before I started working with a guide dog. I coped by trying to hide my limitations, which is practically impossible to do when you are accompanied by the most visible sign of blindness. A fact that was actually the argument more than a few family and friends used as to why I shouldn’t get and didn’t need a guide dog, which is amusing to me since that was basically the whole point for me. At the time I wasn’t quite able to explain it or maybe I was just too much of a stubborn teenager and didn’t want to.

What really stands out to me, though, is what I’ve been taught by my girls specifically. I’ve gained firsthand experience in how profound a bond there is between guide dog and handler and along the way gained more than a few insights on life: Dolly with her joie de vivre reminded me to not forget to enjoy myself, even when it was a simple and small thing. Yara’s serious attitude always makes me think of how I can better do the task at hand. And, in her own unique way, Uschi has shown me that it’s important to embrace who you are, quirks and all.

Sometimes it’s hard to separate out the specific things I’ve gained by working with a guide dog, so perhaps that’s why I feel I should have far more to say on the subject. Which only proves the point that all three of my guides have made me acutely aware of how much I have yet to learn and so the lessons continue on.

  1. Arguably, there has been cause for a lawsuit here and there, but none that have been worth it in my personal opinion.

Colors and Blindness

It’s been brought up a few times in the past how my parents learned I was blind because it’s humorous. I know this because when I tell the story in person people always laugh. I guess imagining four-year-old me slamming her head repeatedly into a coffee table is just hilarious that way. For obvious reasons, physical comedy is one of those things I just don’t understand, but to be honest I find the story funny, too, because it’s just the type of ludicrous that convinces me I live in a sitcom. Also, I don’t remember the coffee table [insert head trauma joke here], which acts as a sort of buffer of detachment for me.

Stories like that, I have come to realize, are important not just because they make people laugh at my lack of grace or even because they might “loosen up” to the concept of disabilities, but because they make blindness relatable. Even the least clumsy of us can think of a time where they’ve inadvertently injured themselves on something unseen.

That’s the thing with being born blind that I find both fascinating and relentlessly difficult: relating to “normal” vision. I’ve always seen the way that I do — a world absent of color, depth-perception, and distance vision. One of my favorite things is listening to someone describe a sunset. My father has a particular talent with conveying the breathtaking beauty in astonishing detail. Except as interesting and vivid a picture he creates in his description there’s a point where he might as well be speaking to me in another language because I literally have no understanding of colors.

Growing up I loved to color. As a very little kid I remember having those big crayons that are easier for little hands to grasp and use. There were eight: red, yellow, blue, black, green, brown, orange, and purple. I remember them so well because they were among the first words I ever learned to read and this was so important because the black and brown both looked the same to me. Even the blue crayon itself appeared the same, but I knew when I used it that it didn’t look the same as the coloring I did with those other two crayons. I didn’t really understand why those two crayons had different names when they looked the same to me, but I did know that tree trunks were brown and not black so that seemed a good enough differentiation to my little kid mind.

For some reason enjoyment of coloring is interpreted by adults on almost a continuum of skill so after several years trying to keep my giant crayons working inside the lines I graduated up to the regular sized crayons and that inevitably led to the 64 crayon box. If everyone has their own version of an Unsolvable Puzzle in their life, the 64 crayon box is mine.1 Do you know that there are seven crayons in that box with red or some combination of red in their names? I do because to this day I still don’t understand why there is a red-orange crayon and an orange-red crayon. And what the heck is brick red anyway? I mean, bricks come in all different colors!2

Anyway, getting back to the point, suddenly coloring was so very different. Before the 64-box came into my life I only had two crayons that gave me a bit of confusion and required some extra attention to use. When I went through my new big box of crayons and grouped the ones that looked the same I suddenly had more than half the box in a pile of “black-ish.” And, as I already explained, the labels were far less helpful than my trusty 8-pack. I remember I reorganized the crayons from their original setup where they are grouped by color into something that made more sense to me. Essentially I put my eight trusty friends in the front and just dumped the rest back in the box. When I was feeling particularly adventurous I might sneak out a “new” color to draw with, but when the coloring books were spread before me I only ever picked up a different color if someone handed it to me as a suggestion.

So, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t just ask someone why there were a bunch of repeated, baffling crayons in my new box. Well, for one, I grew up in that strange time when children were taught some amount of manners so telling my parents their gift basically sucked wasn’t remotely a possibility. But more to the point, I didn’t realize I was confused by the crayons. I knew what colors were or at least I thought I did. I mean, we went over them in school and I knew the names of them and various facts like grass is green. Anyway, it became a moot point because it was around this time that I became interested in other art forms like origami and sculpting and making anatomically incorrect horses out of clay for 4-H didn’t require knowing what the heck magenta was.

However, I’m pretty sure if I had tried to explain all that back then it would have been met with bewildered confusion because it happens constantly now when I try to explain it! Here’s an example:

Person: You know you have two different colored socks on?

Me: No. Why, what colors are they?

Person: Well, one is blue and the other is green.

Me: Interesting. They look gray to me.

Person: Well, they aren’t. *indicating each sock* This one is blue and that one is green!

Me:*baffled* Okay then.3

What happens is basically a communication breakdown. The person here is trying to politely convey that my socks don’t match by pointing out their colors and I’m Just Not Getting It. Unfortunately for me that isn’t an excuse because even the most intellectually deficient person on the planet understands what blue and green are. We know that we all have to be taught our colors, but we learn about them at such a young age and after we’ve already had a lengthy visual understanding of them that they are such an ingrained part of our psyche we literally can’t comprehend how someone doesn’t understand them. So, no I didn’t just miss a few days of kindergarten and somehow my teachers managed to forget to check if I got that particular lesson. I’m color blind. I literally do not perceive colors; I physically can’t.

Complete colorblindness is an accurate description for me, but it’s difficult to explain in a way that’s understandable to others because the absence of color and the ability to perceive it are independent of one another. Semantics aside, it’s also a far more rare type of colorblindness than is generally bandied about. Red-green colorblindness is the most common and essentially is the inability to distinguish between the two, which is due, at least in part, because these colors are perceived in hues of yellow, orange, and beige. So, often when I say I’m colorblind it’s understood as I’m seeing some psychedelic version of whats actually there when in fact I’m just not seeing the actual color at all. Yes, I know I said my socks were gray above, but in all honesty I don’t really understand what gray is any more than blue or green!4

What’s really confusing to try and explain is that I don’t live in some drab world of blacks-and-grays. I know this because I can tell the difference between a black-and-white film where things tend to melt together in a sea of monotone blobs and reality where there is a vibrant array of contrast. It’s at this point that I lose any ability to really explain the differences because I don’t understand them any better than any other person. If I could transplant my vision into someone else head they would perceive the way I see completely differently than I do simply because they have an understanding of color perception and would be aware of the absence thereof. The same goes the other way, without an understanding of it, I can’t really paint a picture of the way I see.

What will really bake your noodle is that I have some affinity for the color red. Physically I can’t perceive it, but I can almost always pick out brighter reds — they look, well, warmer — and as yet I can provide absolutely no reason as to why that is. So, while I may never have another anecdotal story to help bridge the understanding of my particular form of colorblindness, I can at least say without guilt that red is my favorite color.

Incidentally, I’ve been told it’s my color. ;-)

  1. Yes, I know there are even bigger crayon boxes out there; that’s beside the point.
  2. It’s also a matter of contention for me, since I’m on the subject, that orange doesn’t smell anything like an orange.
  3. This used to happen so often that for the longest time I only wore white socks because even if they weren’t the same socks, they matched and people didn’t feel a need to point out my mismatched socks to me. And then eventually I found that boring and also keeping white socks white is virtually impossible so I started wearing socks with all kinds of funky designs on them and they almost never match.
  4. Gray to me is everything that isn’t white or black and that’s way too much variety to be what is actually gray.

CSUN13

Today is the start of the 28th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, or CSUN13 for short, and how I desperately wish I could be a part of it as it is the largest assistive technology conference for the blind. But at $500 for registration plus travel, lodging and food for a week that’s more than a little outside of my budget.

Anyway, I’m thrilled that there will be a presentation regarding WordPress accessibility, specifically focusing on themes. Though, if I were going I would likely be the most interested in the session on accessible e-readers.

Assumptions About Guide Dogs: A Top Ten List

The theme for the tenth ADBC was “Perfect 10″ which could be interpreted in several different ways. My submission focused on the “myth” of perfection, but while going through my usual initial post writing struggle I looked through my drafts here and stumbled on this long dormant post idea. I’m more of a “seat of your pants” type when writing blog posts and that doesn’t really lend itself to the blogging fad of top-ten type list posts, but this seemed an appropriate time to finally dust this draft off and share some of the ways people make asses of themselves incorrect assumptions the general public have about guide dogs.


#10. Guide dogs are not pedigreed
In point of fact, all three of my guide dogs have been purebreds, but I am very often confronted by people who choose to challenge this. I’m not entirely sure if these people just feel I’ve been swindled by my guide dog school and actually have a mongrel, but sometimes the tone suggests these same people feel they just know more that I do about the breed of dog I happen to be working with. The one thing that they don’t understand is that while my dog might not be the ideal of the breed standard, her breeding was as meticulously planned out as the finest show dog. Training schools most often breed their own dogs because they can better track the specific traits that are important in a future guide dog, especially since these are not necessarily the same qualities a breeder would target. Through breeding their own dogs the schools also have access to the genetic history of their dogs, which is important in producing sound and healthy dogs.

Yara and Uschi lying together on the sofa in my living room#9. Guide dogs are better than white canes
This is not about my personal preference of working with a guide dog over a white cane, but rather the misguided belief that there’s almost a continuum of mobility aides that a blind person uses. Both are fine tools to travel independently, but not necessarily the best tool for each individual blind person. There are pros and cons to both and in my case the pros of a guide dog far outweigh the cons in comparison to using a white cane. For what it’s worth, I am a strong supporter of every blind person learning to use and possessing a white cane even if they have enough residual vision to travel without one and/or work with a guide dog. It’s just a handy skill to have, like knowing how to read Braille.

#8. Guide dogs love their job
This is perhaps one of the few assumptions that isn’t so much inaccurate as only partly true. Guide dogs do enjoy their jobs and to them it’s less work as just what they’re supposed to do. It’s a choice she’s made to be in this role and one she continues to make each day. I know this by the enthusiasm and excitement she has in her work and even, more often than not, the mere anticipation of doing work. However, for as much as I personally love my job, there are days I’d rather just lounge around the house doing anything but and I’m sure guide dogs must feel the same way now and then. Which is why I do my best to make her working life as far from mundane as I can. For instance, I give her lots of positive reinforcement and we have our own downtime to just let her be a dog.

#7. Absent a guide dog handlers are helpless
It’s rare that I’m not working my guide dog when out of the house. And I admit I’ve had words with people who’ve tried to persuade me to not bring my dog along just because they don’t particularly like being around the dog. I’ve also had words with those that stated the opposite: that they “worry” about me when I’m separated from my guide dog. Yes, I depend on her, but that doesn’t not make me dependent. Though I greatly prefer to have her guide me when I’m going somewhere, especially a place I am unfamiliar with, I am not incapable of navigating independently without her. Furthermore . . .

#6. The guide dog does all the “work”
We call ourselves “a team” for a reason because it’s a joint partnership and we work together, but for whatever reason people seem to think that guide dogs are less leading a blind person and more physically dragging them from place to place. I suppose that would work just fine if guide dogs were automatons with the power to read minds, but then they would probably be less satisfied with their jobs guiding the blind and just revolt and take over the Earth. In all seriousness, though, I admit that there have been times I’ve sort of spaced out and my guide dog has pretty much worked without my input. However, most of the time when that’s happened my dog just gets sloppy and I don’t so much magically end up where I’d planned as I do walking face first into a door. The metaphor of the camel’s nose (“give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile”) comes to mind. Essentially, what I’m saying is that if I let her do all the work, we’d spend much less time getting where I wanted to be and far more time sniffing every tree we came across.

Me with my arms embracing Uschi, who is in harness and giving me a kiss on the face#5. Guide dog team are best friends
I love my guide dogs a great deal and we share a very significant and special bond. However, she’s really not best friend material. Personally, I prefer a bit more stimulating conversation and a bit less watching her lick her rear end. I’m sure she loves me just as much as I do her and it’s probably fair to say that I’m her favorite human, but I’m still not a dog and judging from the exuberance of her playtime I think dogs find other dogs infinitely more fun.

#4. Guide dogs are superior to other dogs
Personally, I find comparing completely pointless, but I do have a lot of people profess to me how great my guide dog is in regard to pretty much any other dog. A lot of the time people are trying to find a way to ask about what happens to career-changed dogs. Dogs that are released from guide dog training programs far outnumber those that actually work in harness and there are a great number of reasons any potential guide dog could fall short. Each school has their own particulars about what dogs will or won’t meet their qualifications, but they all strive to find an equally fulfilling life for the dog. Some go on to other working careers such as therapy or drug detection; while others find their niche in life is to be a loved pet. Regardless of where they end up, they’re valued and that makes them superior in their own way.

#3. Another (pet) dog is “just like” a working guide dog
This one is somewhat related to #4. It’s not very often that someone says this directly to me, but I do hear the statement that “such-and-such dog is just like [my] guide dog” or “such-and-such dog could actually be a guide dog.” Maybe it’s true. But, probably, it’s not. I’ve known some very smart, obedient, and well-behaved dogs in my life, but those qualities don’t necessarily make a guide dog. For one, as important as formal training is that is only one part of the preparation future guide dogs receive. In fact, their entire puppyhood is about preparing them for their potential working life and often the qualities that make a dog a good guide are exactly the things that make them not so great pets. For instance, a guide dog should be obedient and well-behaved, but also stubborn and intelligent enough to know when to disobey a command or take the initiative to do something on their own. This is a very uncommon skill and one of the more difficult aspects of guide dog training. That other dog might be really exceptional, but it does not mean they’re guide dog material.

Me embracing a happy looking Yara in harness#2. A working guide dog is still training
Okay, technically this is more accurately a team assumption, but it is literally the most common thing I hear after the general stat inquiries about my guide dogs. For a very long time I used to take this to mean that people thought I didn’t need a guide dog — and for what it’s worth I have had people (even family members) outright state this. I’ve also had it come from a place of justifying what is perceived as my guide dog misbehaving. The truth is actually less offensive and more amusing, though, because what it usually comes down to is that people generally don’t recognize the difference between a person who is partnered with a guide dog and a volunteer1 with a puppy in pre-training. Part of this is due to the common misunderstanding that “blind” means “totally blind,” so people often mistake the ability to see anything for being fully sighted. Honestly, I think people just don’t expect to run across a real guide dog team, so they are genuinely inquiring out of curiosity. That said, this isn’t a wholly inaccurate assumption, in my opinion. While guide dogs have essentially had years of training, it really doesn’t stop the day they are partnered with their handler or when the team finishes their instruction. Maintaining the high level of training that a guide dog has received is a constant process and a lot of that is how the team bonds. But to avoid confusion I personally tend to avoid using the term “train” when referencing obedience exercises or other bonding activities that would specifically fall into this category.

#1. Guide dogs never make mistakes
The basic assumption is that guide dogs are perfect and this one is particularly difficult because it is the general expectation the public seem to have of guide dogs. I also find that handlers tend to be highly critical of other teams and judge them poorly if they witness mistakes being made. I’m guilty of once thinking this was true myself and my inability to achieve perfection with my guide dog partner was the cause of great shame for me. I thought the fact that my guide dog made mistakes was because of my shortcomings as a handler. I felt that perhaps my guide dog wasn’t meant to be my partner. I even thought it made us a failure as a team. The truth is mistakes happen. Guide dogs are dogs regardless of their high level of training and they are fallible. As are their human partners. It’s simply a fact of life and expecting differently is a standard which no one can achieve and will only succeed in causing disappointment.

  1. The specifics of the mistaken assumption, I think, vary depending on where you live. In the City where several training schools work, I’ve had many people think I was a guide dog instructor. Whereas at home my dog is often thought to still be awaiting formal training as I live in a pretty active puppy raising region.