The Braille Monitor March, 2002
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Wheelin' and Dealin'
by Suzanne Whalen
Suzanne Whalen and Caddo
From the Editor: Suzanne Whalen is the President of the National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU). Several years ago she had a fall that landed her in a wheelchair most of the time. She has coped with ongoing pain and a level of frustration since her accident that leaves me shaking my head in admiration and respect. But her determination to find a way to achieve independence again has remained strong, and now she has accomplished her dream with the help of friends, her guide dog, and the dedicated professionals at Southeastern Guide Dog School in Florida. She recently wrote the story of her odyssey for the Fall, 2001, issue of Harness Up, a publication of the National Association of Guide Dog Users. Here, in a somewhat abbreviated form is that article in the hope that it may encourage others who have not dared to hope that they too could achieve independent travel again:
For those of you who are into country music, and I must confess that, since moving to Texas, I have acquired a taste for some of it at least, many songs have been written about wheels. These include "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," "Big Wheels Keep On Turnin'," "Roll On, Eighteen‑Wheeler, Roll On," etc. Of course these all happen to be about trucks, and, like any good guide dog user, I find that it's better for my overall health if I make it a practice to stay out of the way of trucks as much as possible. Nonetheless, I too have acquired my own set of wheels. True, I have only four, not eighteen. But, just like those big trucks, my vehicle needs a battery in order to operate, and I can travel at a pretty good rate of speed on the straightaways. Also, just like some truckers I know, I take my dog with me on all my runs. Like most truckers, who are quite proud of their sleek, shiny rigs, I am very proud of the picture of confidence and independence my dog and I present as we drive around town.
For anybody wondering what in the world I'm talking about, I use a power wheelchair when I travel outside my home. I am guided by my faithful Seeing Eye and Southeastern dog, Caddo. (That's right: we're talking about two schools, but only one dog.) Having Caddo means the world to me. All of us love our guide dogs and treasure what they do with us and for us every day, But Caddo has become my passport to freedom in ways I could never have imagined.
In February, 2000, I fell into a manhole. I want to emphasize here that Caddo, whom I had obtained from the Seeing Eye the previous July, was not guiding at the time. He was out of harness, circling and looking for a place to relieve. I was in Baltimore, and the ground was icy. Caddo is a strong dog, and somehow, in the course of his circling, I lost my balance and fell into the manhole. I suffered severe back, spine, leg, and ankle injuries.
I am making progress in my recovery. I can now stand and walk for very short periods of time (no longer than about ten minutes maximum). So I must use a wheelchair whenever I travel outside my home.
My newfound freedom has some limitations. Water getting into the motor of my chair could cause serious mechanical problems. Therefore, because I cannot always be sure of avoiding puddles, I must be pushed in a manual chair and must leave Caddo home during and immediately after a rain. The same is true when I must travel by car, including days when my own physical stamina will not allow me to tolerate a long trip by bus or paratransit.
Despite that, Caddo and I go many places by ourselves on many days. I treasure each trip the two of us make independently.
I owe a great deal to the Seeing Eye. Before needing to be trained with a wheelchair, I learned everything I know about working with a guide dog successfully from the Seeing Eye. I never wanted to switch schools, and had it not been for this accident, I never would have done so. I hope Caddo's working life extends to many more years. But one day I hope to be able to have the choice to return to the Seeing Eye, whether I can once again walk without pain or whether I am still in a wheelchair. The Seeing Eye has had faith in me ever since they gave me my first dog in 1975. I have had five terrific dogs, all from the Seeing Eye. After my accident the Seeing Eye boarded Caddo and worked him and kept his skills sharp until he arrived at Southeastern for wheelchair training in August, 2000. Even though the Seeing Eye is not yet equipped to do full‑scale wheelchair training, they are supportive of my efforts and are sharing the burden with Southeastern of providing my follow‑up services in Dallas, my hometown. Because the Seeing Eye did such an excellent job in breeding Caddo and laying a superior foundation of guide training and because Caddo did so well at Southeastern, I have been informed by Southeastern that they plan to use Caddo as the standard against which all dogs trained for wheelchair guiding work in the future will be judged. What an honor to the Seeing Eye, and it is truly deserved.
I also owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Southeastern. Southeastern is the only guide dog school in the United States which regularly trains dogs to guide blind people using power wheelchairs. Southeastern was under no obligation to accept me for training of course, but they did, and they treated me as one of their own. Up until Southeastern trained Caddo, it had been unheard of for any guide dog school to accept into its program a dog which had been bred and trained by another school. Southeastern could have refused to train Caddo and asked me to accept one of their dogs instead. From what I have seen, their dogs are every bit as good as the Seeing Eye's, but I love Caddo. Had they not trained him, I would have had to give him up, and, on top of the physical and emotional pain of my injuries, this would have been devastating. But Southeastern did train Caddo, and they provided Caddo and me with one-to-one instruction during the twenty-six‑day class period. They also custom-designed his harness, making it higher on one side than on the other, giving the handle a significant offset, and adding S hooks on both sides to increase the harness length and to give Caddo more room to maneuver, especially in tight places. With these adaptations Caddo also has the best possible chance to stay clear of my wheels.
Before I was reunited with Caddo on March 20, 2001, I could not go anywhere alone. I had to depend on others always to push me in a manual wheelchair. Southeastern has given me the priceless gift of increased freedom of independent mobility. The more places Caddo and I go, the more we practice; and the more skilled we become, the more our self‑confidence and independence increase. Compared to the 2000 NFB Convention, when I had to be pushed everywhere at the convenience of others, the 2001 convention in Philadelphia was fabulous! For as long and as often as my pain level would permit, Caddo and I went wherever we wanted to, whenever we wanted to, by ourselves: to meetings, to restaurants, on the elevators, to and from the relief area. I wasn't brave enough to try the exhibit area, and we did require help from a Southeastern representative to get into the banquet, to get situated at our table, and to leave when the banquet had ended. But convention for me was a thrill and very liberating. Caddo even helped out once with some intelligent disobedience. With all the noise, I did not hear that we were about to get onto the escalator. Caddo stopped dead and refused to budge. Suddenly I realized my error.
Southeastern spent thousands of dollars to purchase my power wheelchair--something they do for all students needing wheelchair training. This is, of course, a real benefit financially for most students. Still another benefit is that Southeastern carefully chooses the best and safest chairs it can find. My chair has anti‑tip casters in front. It is very sturdy, and in order to tip over, I'd almost have to do it deliberately. While I was in class, they went out of their way to meet my needs and make me as physically comfortable as possible. They even equipped my bed in the dormitory with a special air mattress which massaged my body, providing me with much‑needed pain relief so that I could sleep. Indeed, since my accident I have not slept so well.
Not only has Larisa Scharikin, my instructor from Southeastern, come to Dallas to assist me, but, since I am the first person the Seeing Eye has worked with using a wheelchair, Southeastern has helped Seeing Eye instructors understand how they can best assist me in Dallas. I am proud and honored to be a graduate of Southeastern, and I will do all I can to give back to the school in every way I am able.
In the seventy-two years people have been using guide dogs in the United States, Caddo and I are the first team to have graduated from two schools during our working lifetime. I am extremely proud of and fiercely loyal to both my schools. I hope this is just the beginning and that we will see more co‑operation in all kinds of ways between guide dog schools. I also hope that at least one or two more guide dog schools, including the Seeing Eye, will develop quality wheelchair training programs. Working with a guide dog is not for every blind person in a wheelchair, but neither is it for every blind person who can walk.
Southeastern has sixteen wheelchair users currently on its waiting list, and the odds are that, as we baby boomers age, more of us will experience accidents or illnesses, which could require us to use a wheelchair either temporarily or permanently. I urge every guide dog user to find out more about this subject from me and from Southeastern. Then, if you think this is something your school could and should be doing, please encourage them.
Because I've been asked so many questions about my experience, I want to spend the rest of this article covering three aspects of it.
I received my power wheelchair in mid‑January, 2001. This gave me two months to practice traveling in it and to become comfortable with it before arriving for class on March 19. Southeastern could not make many suggestions about how to become proficient. I'm not sure whether any of their previous students told the school how they had prepared. So, being a teacher and being very analytical by nature, I developed a curriculum for myself, and I am writing out the steps I took and sending them to Southeastern so that they can offer my plan to future students for their consideration.
My preparation program consisted of three distinct phases. During the first phase I practiced traveling from room to room in my own apartment. I very quickly learned the space requirements needed to maneuver my big chair. One time I got stuck between the bed and the dresser and had to leave the chair there until somebody could come move the bed to give me room to get it out. Centering my chair to go through doorways proved a challenge at first. I made myself practice going through doorways backwards and forwards. I also did the same with the ramps leading up to my outside door.
I first went through doors that were already open. Then I progressed to situations in which I had to open the doors (both push and pull type) and work the chair through, holding the door open with hands, arms, and sometimes feet. Normally as blind people we don't worry about what's behind us, having just traveled safely through that area. But when you go through doors in a wheelchair, you have to listen in front, to both sides, and behind to make sure you have left enough room on either side so that the back wheels clear the doorway without hitting it. I found that I had to develop the same kind of spatial perception that many of us used as children to ride tricycles and bicycles: the ability to hear objects from a seated position. I got to the point where I could roll among and around the furniture in my home without hitting anything.
As my skills and confidence increased, so did my speed. I must confess I began playing chicken, driving faster and faster toward walls and closed doors, seeing how well I could hear their approach in order to judge my distance so that I could stop close enough for my hands to reach out and touch them without hitting them with the chair. I did well every time except one. I became a little too cocky one day, and the next sound I heard was the crunching of metal wheelchair foot plate biting into wall sheet rock.
Looking back, I can say that five good things came as a result of this disaster. First, I learned right then that a power chair stops as soon as you stop pushing the joystick (a valuable lesson in later traffic checks with my dog). Since I stopped the moment I heard the sickening crunch, the damage was not as great as it might have been. Second, I was not evicted. Third, the maintenance men repaired the resulting hole in my living room wall with relative ease. Fourth, I became more humble and cautious as well as more confident. And finally, months later it was not I but rather Larisa, my Southeastern instructor, who took a ramp too fast and crashed my wheelchair into my closed front door, necessitating the total replacement of the door. My landlady, having survived wheelchair‑inflicted property damage once before, was neither shocked, surprised, nor angry. I was still not evicted.
The Great Outdoors
The next phase in my preparation was to travel outside my home. At first I tried using a long white cane. I understand this works for some blind people using power wheelchairs, although a mobility instructor who specializes in teaching cane travel to people in wheelchairs has told me that very few of his students attempt crossing streets without assistance. For me, I found the use of the cane annoying. Frankly, though I am glad of the cane skills I have, even when I could walk without pain, I never enjoyed the period between dogs. Even then, I always found cane travel to be too slow and too demanding of my concentration compared with using a dog.
Now, however, working from a wheelchair, I faced new problems using a cane for very long. I am right‑handed, but the joystick is on the right side of my chair. This meant that I had to learn to arc the cane using my left hand as I drove. Sometimes I ran over my cane accidentally. Also, because of my type of injuries, it became too painful to reach out beyond my foot plate and front wheels constantly to arc my cane so that it would give me enough warning when I was approaching an obstacle or the edge of the sidewalk. I found it more comfortable to check with my feet to verify my distance from edges or obstacles and make the necessary corrections in my driving. At first I had to stop my wheelchair and reach my feet out beyond my foot plate. Later I learned how to extend my feet without running over them while the chair was still moving.
For those who don't have use of their feet, a cane is a very helpful tool. I even found that, though I couldn't conveniently drive and use a cane at the same time, I could stop my chair and use a folding cane in my right hand just to check out the situation for a second or two. For a while in class, even after I had Caddo, in addition to checking with my feet, I would sometimes get out a folding cane just to check briefly why my dog was stopping or whether he was maintaining a safe distance from edges or staying far enough to the left in country work. I found that in my situation prolonged use of a cane would have been too tiring and too painful, and it certainly would never have been a suitable substitute for a dog.
By the way, for anyone wanting to use a cane at all in wheelchair work, I recommend the cane made by Ambutech, a Canadian corporation. It has a roller ball tip, which means that it won't get stuck in sidewalk cracks and grass the way a traditional cane tip sometimes does. Ambutech's toll‑free number is (800) 561‑3340. Their address is 34 De Baets Street, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada R2J 3S9. Their e‑mail address is <email@example.com>. I should add here that during this part of Phase Two I never crossed streets alone.
Later in this second phase, as an alternative to using a cane or using my feet, and in order to be able consistently to travel faster and to gain experience crossing streets, I would ask sighted friends to walk with me. I experimented whether it was better if they walked ahead of me, behind me, or to the left or right. In my case no one position proved to be consistently any more helpful than the others.
At first my friends had to warn me when I got too close to edges or obstacles. As my ability to use my hearing and spatial perception to detect objects increased, I was often able to hear them approaching from further away and make course corrections to avoid hitting them before being warned. As time went on, I needed fewer and fewer warnings and could sense and avoid more and more things on my own: shelves, people, and shopping carts in narrow store aisles; tables or bookshelves in the library; tables and chairs in restaurants; newspaper boxes, fire hydrants, and telephone poles on sidewalks; parked and idling cars in parking lots.
During this second phase a friend and I decided to have a meal at Denny's Restaurant. Denny's is across West Northwest Highway from my home. It is a busy, multi‑lane highway. The speed limit for traffic headed eastbound from where I live is 45 miles per hour. To put it mildly, this speed limit is not always obeyed. There is a light more than a block away, but not one at the intersection with my street. I would not cross this intersection alone on foot, but my friend assured me that she could tell when we had the light, so I agreed to try. During this crossing, I had her walk several paces ahead of my chair so that I could hear her and wouldn't veer. We were about halfway across West Northwest Highway when a car suddenly appeared from nowhere. My friend said the only smart thing she could think of. "Stop! Now!" she screamed.
I did. We made it to the restaurant. But by then my confidence, though thankfully not my body, had taken a hit. She had to call her husband, who drove me home while she drove my wheelchair home. Next day I was back at it, though I never again did anything that brave or that stupid.
The Juno Wheels
The third and final phase of my pre‑class preparation is familiar to nearly every guide dog user, the Juno walk. I modified this practice, including giving it a different purpose from the one it's normally used for, and called it a Juno wheel. I held the harness handle while various sighted friends, playing the part of Juno, held the body part. My wheelchair has quite a range of speeds, from one‑half mile per hour at its slowest to four miles an hour at its fastest. I set the chair's speed at a comfortable walking pace for each friend. I showed each the right height to hold the harness, and off we went. Sometimes, as in the traditional Juno walk, I gave the directional commands; at other times I let Juno choose the routes.
The purpose here was that, whenever Juno made a turn, either to change direction or to lead me around an obstacle, he or she did so with no oral warning. I had to feel what my friend was doing through the harness handle and respond accordingly, applying only enough pressure to my joystick to make the turn required. We crossed streets; did sidewalkless travel; went through parks; and traveled in stores, malls, libraries, churches, and other indoor environments. During this phase I learned that judging traffic flow sitting down is just as effective as judging it standing up, though you have to be absolutely sure which is the parallel and which the perpendicular street. This is not always easy, since some wheelchair ramps are at a diagonal across the intersection, and you have to line up correctly.
In retrospect I believe that the Juno wheels were the most valuable part of my pre‑class preparation, and I am glad they received the lion's share of my practice time. Following Juno gave me a valuable advantage when I had to follow Caddo in class and respond according to his signals.
The Class Experience
All classes at Southeastern begin on a Monday, and students receive their dogs the next day. At the time that Southeastern purchased my chair, they also purchased another, which they use on campus for training purposes. This meant that I could leave my chair home and use the school's chair during training. This made traveling much easier since of course I didn't have a dog to guide me when traveling to the school. So my instructor picked me up at the airport on Monday, March 19, and presented me with the school's chair upon arrival there. The first day we had the usual welcome by the staff and the usual chance to orient to the building.
Three of us got our dogs Tuesday morning. Two retrain students, who were going to be in class for only two weeks, got their dogs first, and then I got Caddo. Everyone else received their dogs Tuesday afternoon. I am aware that at some schools the dogs are introduced privately to the students in their rooms. At the Seeing Eye the dog is introduced privately to the student in a lounge. At Southeastern, at least in my class, the introductions are a cause for community celebration.
The whole class was in the lounge and got to watch as each person met his or her dog for the first time. I worried about this. I was afraid that Caddo wouldn't remember me, and then I'd be upset and cry and look like a fool in front of my class. Luckily it didn't happen that way. He immediately leaped into my lap, put one front paw on each of my shoulders, covered my face with kisses, whined, and made happy puppy noises. I had waited through more than a year of separation for this moment. Somehow I made it to my room before I cried tears of deep joy.
I found another of Southeastern's practices different from what I was used to. At the Seeing Eye students begin training in town right away, the next morning after receiving their dogs. This is not the case at Southeastern. The first week is spent entirely on campus. Southeastern believes that there is value in student and dog learning to read each other and learning to stride out together with confidence before being introduced to the added hassles of traffic and crowds. Besides, Southeastern has a Freedom Walk with curbs, benches, and many other obstacles like those in the real world, and this gives lots of opportunity for varied practice. I'm not saying that one approach is better than another, just different.
As adept as I had become at following Juno in my wheelchair, I needed a little time to distinguish when Caddo was taking me around something and when he was distracted and trying to go off in another direction. Sound familiar? Also those first few days his signals weren't as definite as Juno's had been. I needed to learn to trust him. But he also needed to learn to trust me because I certainly was not as skilled with the chair as his instructor Larisa had been. Sound familiar again? In fact, the first day I ran over him with the chair, and that scared me. Also on the first day I did something I still can't believe I did. Caddo was walking along. "Praise him," Larisa commanded.
It didn't seem to me that he had done anything especially praiseworthy, but then I was more focused on my own nervousness than on him. "Why?" I actually asked. (Did I mention that Caddo is my fifth dog?) Can you imagine asking your instructor why when he or she tells you to do something so basic? It was not one of the smarter things I can credit myself with having done in my life. She was actually pretty nice about it, and my head was not separated from my body. In fact, we laugh about that when we reminisce about class.
Later that week Caddo hesitated. I guess Larisa could see that he was going to make a move to take me around something, but from my perspective it seemed that he was just standing there.
"Go with him," she said. Boy, did I hear that a lot!
I wanted to scream, "But he's not going anywhere! I'd go with him if he'd just go somewhere!" But this time I remembered where I was and that my mother had once said something about discretion being the better part of valor. I restrained myself.
"I'll try," I said, trying to smile. I said that a lot. So I appreciated not having to contend with street-vehicle and pedestrian traffic that first week.
Beginning the second week, the class worked in the towns of Palmetto and Bradenton. From there we progressed to successfully working two days in Tampa and a day in Sarasota before the class ended. We also had two mandatory night trips during the class.
My instruction essentially paralleled that of the other students, except that I had my own individual instructor. When they went to the mall, I went to the mall. The only difference was that I learned how to get on and off elevators, and they practiced escalators as well as elevators. When they worked barricades on the streets, so did I, but whereas their routes required them to step up and down curbs when crossing streets, the school made sure that I worked on intersections with ramps. They rode the bus, and so did I. But I went on a different day, and whereas they used the steps, I used the lift.
One of my proudest moments happened on the last day of class when Larisa asked me to do a solo several blocks in length. Solos are not generally required at Southeastern though students can request them. I guess that, since Larisa used to work at the Seeing Eye and solos are required there, she required one of me. Wonder of wonders, I didn't mess up! I remembered the route. I followed my dog. I praised my dog. I even did some problem-solving of my own, like getting the wheelchair unstuck from a big crack in the sidewalk, which Larisa later said she had forgotten was there. I also had to disentangle myself gently from the old lady who wanted to tell me stories about every dog she had ever known.
"My instructor will be angry," I lied in desperation. "I know she's watching somewhere. I have an assignment to complete. I'd love to talk, but I really must go." It worked.
I felt as if I had passed some sort of final exam. There was hope for me after all. Caddo and I really could make a new life with me in this wheelchair.
"Caddo, we're alive!" I shouted triumphantly as we sailed down the last block. "We did it. Good boy!"
I was delighted when Pete Lang, Training Manager for the Seeing Eye, came to visit early in the class and observed us for a day as we went on our trips. The mall was no problem; Caddo made it look easy. I was happy in the belief that Caddo and I were making a good impression, and I felt that our hard work and our accomplishments were obvious.
But I wasn't so sure of that following my afternoon trip. I didn't know that I was taking the next difficult step on the learning curve with that trip. Pete got to see what actually goes on in class. I was introduced to a nightmare route that afternoon. The sidewalks weren't straight. Some of them were peculiarly offset, and they seemed to go nowhere logical. Wildly offset ramps were at some of the intersections. And there were other problems as well. I had encountered some of the situations this route presented in other parts of town and in Tampa, but not all. I knew how to cope with some of the obstacles, but some were completely new, and I had to learn new skills for the first time. It seemed that every block threw a variety of challenges and frustrations at us. I suppose I didn't do too badly for my first try on the route. I did at least remember to praise my dog.
Pete watched me struggle mightily to learn skills that have of course become easier with practice. For example, when you're trying to line up in a wheelchair at a strangely angled ramp, you have to notice subtleties like which way your dog's head is facing (not just his body) and where the parallel traffic is (because sometimes the ramps lie on a diagonal, and you can really mess up.) So you turn your chair accordingly. Guide training with a wheelchair is very achievable, but it is by no means a piece of cake. It takes a trainer with patience, creativity, ingenuity, and a willingness to work hard and spend the time it takes to do it right. It also takes the right student matched with the right dog. As with any guide dog team, but especially with a team using a wheelchair, it takes motivation and continued practice before, during, and after class.
In class I learned the techniques needed for safe wheelchair travel with a guide dog, and, as instructors from the Seeing Eye and Southeastern help me map out accessible routes at home, I put these techniques into practice regularly. They include the following:
When I ride up and down a lift on a bus or paratransit van, Caddo rides in my lap so his back feet and tail won't get caught.
When I need to go through a door, I center my chair in the doorway, and, if it is not an automatic door, I open the door; hold it open with an arm, a hand, or a foot; drop Caddo's harness; and give him the command "Go ahead" as I slow down my chair to its slowest speed. Caddo then goes through the door and waits for me to do the same. When I am through the door, I pick up his harness again and readjust the chair's speed, and we continue. In this way there is no danger of running over him. Of course we do not use revolving doors because Caddo could get pinned and hurt between the moving door and the moving chair, even if the revolving door is slowed down.
When we take elevators, I pick an elevator and center my chair in the doorway. I can no longer run to catch elevators when they open at the other end of the elevator bank, so, unless I am sure someone will hold the door, I stay put until the elevator I have chosen opens. Once it opens and after everyone who wants to has gotten off, I work Caddo on to the elevator, using my hands and feet to reposition his body gently if necessary and to make sure he is as far back against the elevator wall as possible and I am not too close to him with my wheels. Since elevators vary in width and I cannot always tell if there is enough room to turn around inside the elevator without pinning Caddo against the wall, I never do an about-face. Instead I always gather his leash in my hand and back out when we arrive at our floor, pulling him out last.
When I line up my chair at a table, I put the table on my right and travel along it until I reach our intended location. Then I turn and face the table, keeping Caddo on my chair's left until I am ready to put him under the table. This is easier for me than approaching the table facing it and trying to line up correctly without pinning my dog.
If we cross a street and there is no up ramp, Caddo is trained to put his paws on the curb, then find the nearest driveway to use as a ramp to get out of the street. It's good to know whether there is a ramp or available driveway before you start across. If you get over there and the only choice for getting out of the street is an impossibly high curb, you must either recross the street and select another route or, as I did the only time I got marooned and was too terrified to think, thank God for the two strong men who appeared out of nowhere and very kindly lifted my 300‑pound wheelchair up onto the sidewalk.
Dogs who guide blind people in wheelchairs must demonstrate a thorough understanding of the principles of guiding first before the additional training of working with the chair can be added. This is why service dog schools, if they know nothing about guide-dog training, should not undertake this work. They train dogs for sighted people, and those dogs do very different tasks for their handlers, which do not involve guiding. Service dogs for sighted wheelchair users are not required to maintain a safe distance from traffic or make decisions about whether or not there is adequate room to permit a wheelchair to pass through an area safely.
I will use an incident which happened after we arrived home from class as an example. We were headed down a street with the parallel traffic on our left. Suddenly we came to a house with, apparently, a lot of visitors. Cars were parked all up the driveway, and other cars were parked so that they blocked the sidewalk in front of the house. An instructor from the Seeing Eye happened to be with me, and he was curious to discover what Caddo would do. Caddo slowed, then stopped, analyzing the situation. As we all know, if I had been walking, he might have been able to step to the right, between the cars, across the lawn, and back onto the sidewalk. More likely, he would have faced the street, stepped off the curb, walked past the house till we came to open sidewalk, and stepped back up the curb to continue our travels.
Neither of these choices was available to him with me in the chair. Without any word from me, he did a 180‑degree turn in front of my chair so that he was now facing back the way we had come. This signaled me to turn my chair around. We backtracked to the previous house, where the driveway was unobstructed. Caddo used that driveway as a ramp to enter the street, turned back around to our original line of direction, and continued our travels past all the cars to the next clear driveway, which he used as a ramp to get out of the street. Sometimes Caddo amazes even me.
Close Encounters of the Weird Kind
As promised, I will conclude this article on a humorous note, citing several quick examples of the utter lack of thought on the part of some of our sighted friends. These are not in any particular order of strangeness.
Example 1. Before attending a concert at Southern Methodist University, I naturally called to find out if the auditorium where the concert was to take place had a wheelchair-accessible entrance and, if not, where the nearest one would be. You know: the old How-do-I-get-there-from-here? question. After the gentleman tried repeatedly to give me driving directions, which I assured him I wouldn't need, he glibly said, "Oh, just come in at the box office entrance. It's right in front. Up just a few steps."
I reminded the man that I'm in a wheelchair and that I would need an entrance with a ramp.
"Well, the box office is just up the stairs," he repeated.
I tried again, explaining that wheelchairs, at least my wheelchair, cannot climb steps. To which he replied, "Well, they're just little stairs, and there aren't very many of them."
For the sake of the reputation of this fine university, I hope he's not a student there, and I wish I were making this up. But all's well that ends well: I finally got the information I needed (from someone else, of course) and a very nice usher escorted me to the concert. Incidentally, the theater manager was going to escort me back to the entrance after the concert, and he did, by following well behind, because Caddo remembered the way we had come and reversed the route. The poor man had to trot to keep up.
Example 2. Caddo and I were coming home from shopping at Target one evening. We were zipping down the street, minding our own business. Suddenly a car pulled up beside us; the driver tapped his horn to get our attention and then rolled down his window.
"Hey, ma'am, with the dog! You're pretty smart," he observed. I happen to agree with him (at least, on most days when my brain works), but I wondered how he could tell at a passing glance. I didn't have to wait long to be enlightened.
"Yep, that's a good idea," he continued. "Having your Seeing Eye dog riding along with you like that. Does that thing have a battery?"
"Yes," I answered weakly.
"Great!" he said. "When it runs out, you can just have him pull you." After dispensing that bit of wisdom, he drove away, no doubt very pleased with himself for his contribution to my welfare.
I'm still not sure why he thought Caddo was riding. He was of course walking in front of the chair and a little to my left. I am the one who rides. And for the benefit of anybody who thinks there's any chance that Caddo can pull my chair, the chair weighs 300 pounds without me in it, and Caddo weighs less than eighty pounds, so the laws of physics argue against that plan.
However, speaking of pulling brings us to Example 3. I actually had to intervene to stop a heated argument in Spanish between two men. One had bet the other fifty dollars that my chair does not have a motor and that the dog was indeed pulling it. I hope the loser didn't have plans for spending that money.
Example 4. A Good Samaritan hurried to open a door for me, when her friend stopped her with this sage advice: "Oh, you don't have to open the door. The dog will do that for her. Those dogs are amazing!" Well, in my opinion, these dogs are not quite as amazing as the misconceptions some people have.
Speaking of doors brings us to Example 5. This has actually happened several times. People will rush to open a door when they see me coming. I always thank them politely for their offer of help, but then I explain that it's easier and safer to allow me to open the door myself and work my dog through it the way I have been trained. Most of the time, people respect that. Sometimes, however, they don't listen, and they just stand there with the door open, so I very carefully proceed through the door. What's really fun is when some of them inexplicably position themselves right in the middle of the doorway as they hold the door so that there is barely enough room to pass through without hitting them. I haven't hit one yet, however.
"Don't run over my foot!" a worried helper pleaded. I did not answer, and I did not run over her foot. But all this could have been prevented if she had listened to me in the first place. My other favorites are the people who tell me they'll open the door and then become frightened as I approach and allow the door to slam shut.
Example 6. I was making a presentation about blind people and guide dogs to an elementary school assembly recently. The students had been told that I was a teacher. I asked the children if they had any ideas how I might know what my students had written on their papers.
"Yeah, I know, Miss!" one boy volunteered enthusiastically. "Your dog reads them to you!" Ah, well. Educating the public about blindness can't start too early.
Example 7. I had just positioned my chair in an out-of-the-way place to wait until a table became available in a restaurant. When I'm going to be stationary for a while, I usually turn the power off to avoid inadvertently hitting the joystick with my arm and moving the chair. I had forgotten to do this, however, and startled myself by moving the chair.
"Turn it off!" I reminded myself, half aloud.
Unfortunately, a gentleman seated on a nearby bench overheard me and remarked to his friend, "Why does she have to tell the dog to turn the chair off? Doesn't he know to do that?"
"He's not responsible for doing that," I said.
"He's not? Isn't he driving the chair?" my new acquaintance asked.
I could not stop the irritated sigh that escaped from my lips. "Sir, if you'll notice," I said, "the dog is on my left. The joystick that operates the chair is on my right." No further comment was made.
There is one plus about working with a guide dog from a power wheelchair, though. I don't know if it's because we move so quickly, or because my chair is large and looks imposing, or because people are too busy staring in disbelief at what they're seeing, but I get almost nobody calling or petting or otherwise distracting my dog in harness. It's wonderful!
To learn more about Southeastern's wheelchair program, please call (941) 729‑5665, e‑mail them at <infoguidedogs.org>, or write to them at 4210 77th Street, East, Palmetto, Florida 34221.
If you or a friend would like to remember the National Federation of the Blind in your will, you can do so by employing the following language:
"I give, devise, and bequeath unto the National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, a District of Columbia nonprofit corporation, the sum of $__________(or "______ percent of my net estate" or "The following stocks and bonds: ________") to be used for its worthy purposes on behalf of blind persons."
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