Using a cane has always felt very exclusionary to me. People who interact with me completely normally when I don’t use it speak really slowly, or leap out of my way, or treat me like a small child. Strangers either won’t talk to me at all or go out of their way to “accommodate” in really unnecessary, embarrassing ways. I’m sure you’ve experienced all of this. From my limited experience of being around friends’ guides, guide dogs seem to be on the other extreme; they’re inclusionary, in that everyone wants to interact with you because PUPPY, with all the problems that entails. I’m sure that would annoy me too, but I’m quite social and I don’t think it would make me feel so isolated when going about my day. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Especially now that you’ve been in professional environments with Romana, do you think she impacted the way you integrated socially and professionally?
This is a really interesting and well-thought question. It’s one I’ve thought a lot about but no one has asked specifically until now. Now that I’ve been with Romana for over two years, I feel like I have more experience to answer this more fully. Bear in mind that my answer is rather subjective and purely based on my observations, biases, and experiences, so many people would answer quite differently.
I’ve said this before when other people ask me about my guide dog experience, the negative public interaction was the most difficult thing for me to reconcile. As you might remember (and it’s fine if you don’t), I was very sick my last semester of high school, got my colectomy, and started college the next fall. I used a cane my freshman year but applied for a guide dog that September to then receive her the following August due to the long waitlist at Guide Dogs for the Blind. I was always very extraverted growing up, but between getting ill and having somewhat of an isolating first year, I grew to become more introverted and appreciated my time alone. This was more of a personal feeling than a reality though, because obviously I was still very noticeable walking around with a pixie cut and a distinctive look, not to mention a long stick. But like you smartly noted, people treat you differently with it and tend to stay out of your way. I noticed that difference when I interacted without my cane than with it… until I had to read something close up, then things became awkward.
That all changed when I got Romana, and, like you said, people were infatuated with the PUPPY. I was very angry those first four months because while I loved the extra freedom and confidence she gave me, I wished people would leave us alone so I could do my thing. By getting a guide, I felt I was forfeiting the ability to be (more) anonymous. Everyone would notice me, constantly, interrupting conversations with my friends to comment on my dog or whine that they couldn’t interact with her. However, thanks to some wise friends, growing up, and getting used to it, I’ve finally reconciled that you can’t control how people interact with your guide, but how you react to those people. Seems obvious, but it was a long lesson for me. That doesn’t mean that I’m cool as a cucumber because I don’t think I ever am ;) I’m still snarky when I feel like it, I’ve just become a little more patient with people’s ignorance.
That being said, back to your question. I think there’s a lot of variance based on the culture around you, the school where your guide came from, and your own personal handling style. I also now have a different perspective on what using different mobility tools can do for me, and I manipulate them based on my current needs. Allow me to elaborate, because would it really be a response from me if I didn’t use a list of some kind?
- Culture: I’ve noticed a palpable difference in social environments playing a role in how people interact with Romana and me. As you know, I lived in Seattle last summer, which was lovely and very different than growing up in the Midwest. People constantly comment on the “Seattle chill,” because the culture is naturally more self-centered and materialistic (no shame, I loved it there). However, since people were paying less attention to their surroundings and likely that the sight of a guide dog was a little more normalized, I had significantly less public interaction from Romana. It was amazing for me. I finally felt anonymous, just like any other person riding the bus to go to work. This is in sharp contrast to the Midwest, where people are known to be very friendly, often, overly friendly. People stop me constantly in the grocery store, make conversation on the bus, etc. about my dog, and sometimes they don’t realize how many times I’ve gotten the question of how old she is. Don’t get me wrong, I do love living here, but that’s probably one of my least favorite things.
On the same vein of culture, I’ve noticed a correlation between immigrants being much more curious, likely because disability is significantly less normalized where they’re from. That has led to many, many uncomfortable conversations in Lyfts and taxis, where drivers I assume are immigrants are asking me questions ranging from why I’m blind, what my dog is for, if working with computers made me blind, if I want to try an experimental brain implant to help me see, and even personal offense when I say I don’t want to fix my vision (none of those are exaggerated, I promise). I also feel like people tend to be friendlier to me when I have my dog, probably exclusively because I have her, but sometimes I use that to my advantage, like when TSA decided not to charge me when my bags were too big because I had her stuff and because she’s adorable.
- Guide dog school: There are so many guide dog schools to choose from, and everyone will try to sway you to go to ~their~ school. It’s likely that the school where handlers get their first guide is their favorite, and depending what the school teaches affects how people handle their guides. Some are more strict, so those handlers tend to be stricter (as in, less public interaction, giving dogs treats, letting your dog loose in the house, etc.). Like most things, there are schools that have notoriously bad reputations from a large portion of the blind community, so I’d recommend staying away from those.
- Personal handling style: Your personality, the school as mentioned, the number of guides you’ve previously had, and your own level of comfort can determine how easy it is to integrate socially. I’m a bit of a controlling person (not extremely, but I like things how I like them), so I was stricter at first because I was also nervous and inexperienced. Now, I’ve relaxed a lot, but I like to think I’m a happy medium between very strict and very lax. I know handlers that are so lax about how their dog interacts with other people that they let other people feed them and pet them while in harness which I would never do, but some of it depends on the dog’s temperament and obedience level too. I knew a guy that was so strict that he wouldn’t even tell people his guide’s name, and it was his sixth one! How hard you want to be affects how you interact with people, but make sure you’re not depriving your dog nor letting its training fall by the wayside.
- Difference in tools: Using a cane means something different to me now. I know some handlers only use their canes when their guide is unable to work, but in some situations, I’d prefer it to Romana. I use her primarily during the day, in normal, everyday situations, or when I feel I want an extra measure of safety. Sometimes, people assume that because you have a dog, and since I always work her with a gentle leader because she needs it (she takes too many liberties without it ;) ), your dog will protect you. There’s also this feeling that people are less likely to harm an animal than another person. I’m not sure if she really would protect me to be honest, and I wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t because that’s not how she’s supposed to behave. It’s also just really nice to have her as a companion. A couple weeks ago, I took a Greyhound bus from Columbus to Indianapolis for the first (and hopefully the last) time. I’ve done a lot of risky, independent things before, but this was by far the riskiest. I was so, so grateful she was there with me, because the strange people around me were helpful and a tad bit less intimidating than would’ve been otherwise.
In contrast, I use my cane in out-of-the-ordinary times, at nights since I try to give her the night off when I can, when I think she could be more of a liability, or when I honestly need people to baby me a little. For example, I use my cane when going to OSU football games, during nights out when I don’t need drunk bar-dwellers hanging all over her, going to the grocery store (this causes me some anxiety; it’s hard to push the cart with her by me, and I just feel like I’m more in the way than anything else), or when I need to run a quick errand that a friend is driving me to. As for the last part, it sounds a little strange, but here’s a story: in September, I was going to a career fair in Houston, TX. Romana was having issues with her food and having some diarrhea, so I decided to leave her with my parents. I’d never been to Houston on my own, and this convention center was massive. As much as I like to do things independently and figure it out, I couldn’t afford the time to do that because I had to get around quickly. Also, it was packed and crowded, and I was glad she wasn’t there because she could’ve gotten squished. Since people saw me with the cane, they constantly asked if I needed help, which conveniently I did, so I got things expedited a little by having people direct me exactly where I needed to go. I felt like I finally used it to its advantage, and boy was it nice.
To the second part of your question, I don’t feel like I’ve had any issues with Romana professionally. Again, since I’ve worked in both Columbus and Seattle, culture plays a role. However, I also work in tech, so geeks have several more interests than the dog under your desk. Also in Seattle, one of my coworkers also had a guide, so people were used to that concept. He was much, much more lax though, so I had to be sure people didn’t treat Romana the same way because I wasn’t comfortable with it. It’s never really been an issue though, although I’d say my biggest complaint is that she gets white dog hair all over my suit whenever I wear it ;) She’s come to countless interviews and been to several school career fairs, and I do feel like people still want to know more about my aptitude than her which is a relief.
This was a very long answer to your rather short question, but I really wanted to be as thorough as possible. I hope I answered your question satisfactorily even though I’m sure I’m missing some details. As always, if you have any follow-up questions, don’t hesitate to ask, and thanks for coming to my Ted talk ;)