The Braille Monitor _June 1997
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Karla Westjohn and her dog]
It Is About Guide Dogs:
But It Is About More Than Guide Dogs
From the Editor Emeritus: In the October, 1995, issue of the Braille Monitor we extensively discussed the use of guide dogs as a means of mobility for the blind. Despite some initial fireworks, I think that discussion was constructive and worthwhile. Its consequences are still being felt.
When we were preparing that issue of the Monitor, I received a thoughtful article from Karla Westjohn, but I got it too late for inclusion. Now, over a year later, she has written me again, and this time it is not too late for inclusion. What she has to say is about guide dogs, but it is about much more than that.
In late January of this year "Dateline NBC" aired a program about a blind person and a guide dog, and Karla didn't like it. No, worse than that. She thought it was absolutely terrible--miserable--benighted--and any other uncomplimentary term you can think of. She not only thought, but she acted. She wrote a letter to me; she wrote an article for the Monitor; and she wrote a letter to "Dateline NBC." We are printing all three.
I disagree with a few of Karla's comments, but that doesn't matter. What counts is that most of what she says is right on target and that all of it is thoughtfully put and said with civility. It has the ring of sincerity without the stridency of bigotry. Our problems would be made easier if more of us behaved that way--speaking up with courtesy, firmness, and determination when we encounter misconceptions.
Here is Karla's letter to me, followed by her article for the Monitor, followed by her letter to "Dateline NBC":
March 28, 1997
Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, President Emeritus
National Federation of the Blind
Dear Dr. Jernigan:
In late January "Dateline," one of NBC's news magazines, did a particularly awful story featuring a blind woman and focusing primarily upon her use of a guide dog. Before watching it, I did not believe that every stereotype about blindness could appear in a single broadcast. I know better now.
To make matters worse, a representative of the NBC affiliate for Champaign-Urbana contacted me the day before the segment aired. The "Dateline" story dealt with guide dogs, the gentleman said. Specifically, it dealt with the long and cumbersome process of getting a guide dog. Would I agree to do a brief interview for the local affiliate, which would follow "Dateline?"
Never wishing to bypass an opportunity to present accurate information about any and all aspects of blindness, I replied that I would be happy to discuss the matter, but I did not find the process difficult at all. I further stated that guide dog schools have every right to check out applicants--as does any other educational institution.
I provided factual information about guide dogs and blindness. Specifically, I discussed the responsibilities of being a guide dog handler and stated unequivocally that cane skills are invaluable. When the reporter inquired if my dog had made it possible for me to do things which I could not
otherwise have done, I said that she certainly enhanced efficiency in travel but that, whether or not I used a dog, I would have accomplished whatever I set out to do. Parenthetically, the same could be said of white canes.
My responses were nonexistent in the piece. With the exception of about five seconds, the reporter spoke the entire time during the local broadcast, ratifying the vapid "Dateline" interpretation and stating that I "entrusted my life" to my dog.
During the interview I noted the advantages of guide dog use. Not surprising, since I have worked dogs for more than ten years. I also indicated that my dogs have provided vital information. I hope so! If I never derived valuable information from my Seeing Eye dogs, working them would be pointless! That is hardly the same as mindlessly entrusting my life to my dogs.
Suffice it to say that I was a prop in the local story, and I didn't appreciate it! Visions of false light privacy invasion complaints danced in my head. Currently I am operating my own law practice and trying to return to government service as a prosecutor. I have taught legal courses at a community college and would like to teach at the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois. The kind of garbage disseminated in the "Dateline" broadcast destroys opportunity for blind people, and I have no desire to perpetuate the destruction.
Furthermore, people who believe such insipid, sappy drivel make terrible guide dog handlers. Theirs are usually the dogs who cause problems and complications in public. At best, they send their dogs back--confused, traumatized by poor handling, potentially ruined for anyone else. At worst, when the dogs fail to be caretakers in canine form, the disillusioned owner vents her fury and frustration by abusing or neglecting the dog.
Work kept me busy for several weeks, but I have written to NBC to complain about the broadcast. I have also contacted WICD TV, the local affiliate which interviewed me. In addition, I wrote an opinion piece about guide dogs for the Champaign News Gazette, the local newspaper. The Gazette has accepted my piece for publication, and the editor informs me that it will appear within the next few weeks.
I submit that article and my letter to
NBC to the Braille Monitor. I have also included my photograph, since
the Monitor routinely prints portraits of the authors appearing in its
pages. If the Federation has not protested to NBC about the program in question,
Here is Karla's article for the Monitor:
Guide Dogs Are for Grown-ups
by Karla Westjohn
"I like your technique," the policeman says. "That's a nice Lab, too." I smile and thank him. As it turns out, he is a dog handler. An attorney, I am at an unfamiliar courthouse on business, and the door I plan to use is locked. I instruct Jodie, my Seeing Eye dog, to "follow," and the policeman directs me to another entrance.
With respect to guide dogs, fact is infinitely better than fiction. In the public mind blindness is a
debilitating, shameful curse, slightly mitigated by the heroic exploits of a dog. Some assumptions are just too specious to go unchallenged.
Guide work may be the most complicated job that trained dogs perform. Guide dogs have mastered general obedience commands--mandates like "come," "sit," and "down." They obey basic guide commands--"right," "left," and "forward." They find entrances and exits. They locate important objects in strange or familiar areas--counters and elevators, to name two. They work beautifully in snow, a cane user's nightmare because it obliterates ground textures and mutes echoes, both of which provide vital environmental clues. Guide dogs avoid obstructions of all kinds--including overhead obstructions that a cane cannot detect.
Most difficult of all, they disobey commands if obeying them would be hazardous. Good guide dogs have performed life-saving tasks without being told. The traffic check is perhaps the most obvious example of intelligent disobedience or unsolicited work. Both Jodie and Jazz, her predecessor, have responded to rogue vehicles before I heard them: stopping on a dime, jerking me sideways, or backing up. I have simultaneously followed my dog and discovered the reason for her actions. At such times reacting to the errant vehicle when I actually heard it would have been a dangerously late response.
A well-used guide dog permits unparalleled speed and ease in movement. Only joggers pass me on uncrowded sidewalks. Moving that fast with a cane would be unthinkable. Despite proper cane technique, momentum can cause nasty collisions. Rapid motion generates a ferocious cane tip. If that frenetic tip gets between the feet of another pedestrian, the luckless person falls like an axed tree. Conversely, a properly handled guide dog moves with slow deliberation through a crowd, painstakingly avoiding mishaps--no more inadvertent ankle whacking.
Beware the pitfalls!
Mature, assertive people with strong travel and interpersonal skills succeed as guide dog handlers. Getting a guide dog because one lacks orientation skills, friends, or basic self-esteem is a prescription for disaster. The best guide dog cannot assist a mistress who is hopelessly lost most of the time. At first the dog tries to guess what her mistress wants. Eventually she stops guiding because working conditions are impossible.
The white cane is usually the bedrock
of orientation skills, social success, and a positive attitude about blindness.
It instills the abilities to visualize an area and to ask good questions in
unfamiliar surroundings. Using a cane provides a solid understanding of traffic.
Impeccable traffic checks and intelligent disobedience happen because a guide
dog handler possesses that knowledge and usually gives proper commands to his
dog. A guide dog who is continually misdirected in heavy traffic ultimately
In addition, cane users tackle negative attitudes about blindness head-on. If she wants a social life, a cane user must be comfortable with her blindness and must put others at ease, too. Often sighted people see the cane, imagine all the wrong things they could say, and remain silent. The cane user makes friends as a competent human being, not the appendage of a wonder dog.
In the hands of a savvy owner, a guide dog is a social asset. A clean, well-behaved, pretty dog is more striking than a white cane. Such a dog provides a safe entree for a sighted person meeting a blind person for the first time. Discussions may start with a reference to the guide dog, but they need not end there.
On the other hand, a guide dog in the hands of an inept owner is a social detriment. A poorly groomed animal, wandering loose or sniffing, unchecked, at the end of a leash, connotes the most pathetic and antiquated images of blindness. Cutesy behavior--dogs that vocalize in public or who are otherwise conspicuous and disruptive--paint a portrait which is little better. People tolerate such nonsense because, after all, this annoying creature takes care of one even more helpless and pitiful.
Certainly one member of the team needs care. The dog must be fed, relieved, groomed, bathed, and examined by a veterinarian. Her owner must eradicate fleas and other parasites. Regular obedience exercises maintain discipline. Regular play sessions build the equally essential bonds of affection.
Like all dog owners, guide dog handlers must cope with an occasional transgression. A housebreaking mistake or some inappropriate chewing is common in the early months of a partnership. A flawlessly trained dog can be sick--at home or in public. Solving such problems requires self-control and perspective. Without anger a guide dog user must be able to reprimand his dog when necessary. Public accidents are embarrassing. Confronting them requires poise and courtesy. An apology is always in order--along with an offer to clean up the mess or to pay the cleaning bill.
The maudlin mythology deters responsible guide dog use. Some blind people act upon it. Consequently, they are bitterly disappointed when their dogs fail to fix their lives. At worst, such dogs suffer abuse or neglect by their owners. At best, the disheartened owner sends the dog back to the school from whence he came. At the other end of the spectrum are those blind people who, though they could benefit by using a guide dog, are vehemently opposed to the practice--largely because of the widespread misconception that the dog acts as their keeper.
Proficient guide dog handlers know better. Guide dogs lead the way, but they look to their owners for leadership. Being entrusted with the life and well-being of these magnificent animals is a privilege and a responsibility which should be clearly understood.
Here is Karla's letter to "Dateline NBC":
March 28, 1997
New York, New York
Ladies and Gentlemen:
On January 22, 1997, "Dateline," one of your network's news magazines, featured a story about a blind woman with the primary focus upon her use of a guide dog. Virtually every stereotype about blindness manifested itself in the piece. Such press coverage does immeasurable damage to blind people by perpetuating misconceptions and negative attitudes about blindness. Discrimination against the blind is rampant--in education, employment, housing, and every other significant facet of life. Stereotypes should be shattered, not buttressed.
Dennis Murphy, the reporter who handled the story, describes Desiree Stan, the subject of the feature, as "inspirational." Her blindness is portrayed as a traumatic, terrifying curse, imprisoning her in her home. Ms. Stan tearfully states that [upon becoming blind] "the pills were in my hand." She laments her inability to see color and faces.
Blindness is a characteristic, not a curse.
Certainly sight is a significant asset, and blindness is sometimes a formidable inconvenience, but that is the extent of it. Trauma, or at least grief, is present at its onset. Parents of a blind child or adolescent are terrified about their son or daughter's future. An adult who loses eyesight is afraid for the same reason. Still, with proper training and equal opportunity, the physical effects of blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance.
Blind people, including those of us who have never seen, do not live in a dark, desolate world. We use our memories, our other senses, and our powers of analysis to apprehend visual phenomena and are by no means indifferent to beauty--even visual beauty. Culture, more than visual appearance, determines what is beautiful.
For example, Cleopatra, at four feet nine inches and at least 150 pounds, was a knockout in ancient Egypt. A modern American woman of similar stature would not be considered pretty. If visual appearance, not culture, were the primary determinant of visual beauty, standards would be far more uniform.
If "Dateline" wished to describe blindness or portray daily life for a blind person, Mr. Murphy should have interviewed someone competent in the skills of blindness and confident in the knowledge that it is respectable to be blind. Unfortunately, Desiree Stan demonstrates neither competence nor healthy self-confidence. Braille and cane travel, two of the most crucial skills of blindness, are depicted as arduous to learn and inferior to sighted techniques.
Ms. Stan describes the difficulty she encountered in learning Braille, recounting finishing a few paragraphs and being unable to recall what she had just read. No neophyte is adept at the skill she is learning. Experience remedies this problem. Braille is a highly efficient method for reading and writing. It can denote all languages, music, mathematical and scientific notation. Braille's shorthand code was, in large part, responsible for getting me my first real job as an adult--a secretarial position between college and law school.
As has been the case with many other blind professionals, I have found that Braille has facilitated
most of the important events in my life: graduating from college in the top quarter of my class, getting a law degree, passing the bar examination on the first try and under the same conditions as my sighted peers, practicing law, and teaching at the college level. Deplorably, however, only nine percent of blind students read Braille today. Many adults who become blind receive inadequate Braille instruction from rehabilitation professionals. Seventy percent of working-age blind people are unemployed. Eighty five percent of the working blind read and write Braille proficiently.
Hmm ... Could a news story be lurking amid those statistics? One which actually informs the public?
Similarly the white cane, far from being ineffective and connoting pathos, is a tool which every blind person should know how to use. Cane travel teaches environmental awareness as nothing else can. With a cane an individual can move safely and independently, interpreting ground texturesand sounds, which are every bit as informative as street signs. She learns to visualize surroundings and to ask pertinent questions in unfamiliar areas. She comprehends traffic patterns and traffic laws.
More important, the white cane instills the realizations that the blind person is a capable human being
and that it is okay to be blind. A white cane forces a blind person to confront negative attitudes about blindness head on. He deals with unabashed staring and unnerving silence at his approach. She learns to initiate social contacts. Nobody starts conversations by complimenting a white cane, but nobody assumes that the cane is in charge of the man or woman using it either. Friendships are based upon mutual respect. The cane user is not the human appendage of a wonder dog.
I for one was appalled to hear Desiree Stan say that she threw her cane away! The story implies that a guide dog handler need never use a cane. Do guide dogs never become ill, never suffer injury, never die? If, like other living creatures, they succumb to these maladies, are their owners then marooned at home?
I have been a guide dog handler for more than ten years, and I highly value my cane skills. The myth of the guide dog as caretaker must go the way of cave dwellings. It demeans the blind. It entices incompetent people to use guide dogs while dissuading potentially excellent dog handlers from doing so. In reality guide dogs are intelligent, magnificent working dogs, who, like their contemporaries in police, search-and-rescue, and military work, need care, love, and direction from their owners.
We who are guide dog handlers derive numerous travel advantages by working our dogs--faster travel, improved obstacle clearance, and heightened reflexes, to name three. These benefits elude the individual who cannot give specific, authoritative commands to his dog. The handler must know where he is going and how to get there. If he does not, guide work degenerates into aimless wandering, and the dog chooses more rewarding endeavors--like sniffing trees and chasing squirrels.
Mishandled guide dogs are generally incapable of intelligent disobedience, too. Perhaps the most
misunderstood aspect of guide work, intelligent disobedience, occurs when a guide dog disobeys an improper command. As they pass a construction site, the dog's mistress directs him to go forward. A gaping hole yawns before them, so the dog maneuvers to the left around the hole. A guide dog and her master are standing at a busy intersection. The parallel traffic indicates a green light, so the master directs his dog to go forward. The dog does not budge. A car shoots from the stream of parallel traffic and speeds around the corner in front of them, turning right on red without yielding to pedestrians.
Veteran guide dog handlers tell stories like those with pride, but such potentially life-saving exploits do not occur because the dog is omniscient and the handler is oblivious. They happen because the handler usually gives the proper commands to his dog, and the dog thus knows what to do. A good handler also reprimands the dog for mistakes and administers regular obedience exercises. Guide dogs who are continually misdirected become unreliable, as do those whose handlers tolerate misbehavior.
Ms. Stan and Mr. Murphy make much of the social advantages of guide dog use. Advantages exist, but not those they mention. A clean, well--behaved, beautiful dog makes a positive statement about her handler's capabilities and, by inference, the capabilities of blind people generally. A reference to a guide dog can be a safe entree for a sighted person meeting a blind person for the first time. Working a guide dog can spark an interest in other realms of the dog world--animal welfare, obedience and conformation competition, and other canine professions. Several of my friends are dog lovers who share a major interest with me and who, at least partly because of my dogs, see me as an equal.
Nevertheless, using a guide dog neither insulates one from rudeness nor ensures a social life. If anything, guide dog handlers must be better able to blend courtesy and assertiveness than our cane-using counterparts. Without permission--or even after being explicitly told not to do so--people try to pet or feed a guide dog. Those same people often speak to the dog without uttering a word to his owner. Despite the fact that it is illegal, guide dog handlers encounter even more discrimination than other blind people in housing, transportation, and public accommodations.
The legend of the canine nanny actually impedes proper guide work and may promote abuse and neglect of guide dogs. Sighted people, realizing their own competence and believing that the guide dog handler is even less capable than her dog, try to "rescue" the team by directing the dog. The dog has no reason to obey the stranger, and such interference only distracts her from legitimate guide work. The well intentioned but wrongheaded third party may not even be using commands that the dog knows.
The consequences can be even worse when the blind owner believes such drivel. In the best case scenario, the disheartened owner does not resort to inhumane measures. She merely sends a confused, forlorn dog back to school. What a needless waste of time, effort, and money!
Mistreatment of guide dogs is extremely rare, but it happens. As with other forms of cruelty, the perpetrators usually lack basic self-esteem. Often, an abusive guide dog owner lacks the skills of blindness too. Therefore, when his dog fails to be the mythical guardian that magically fixes his life, the human teammate cannot cope. Guide dogs have been kicked, beaten, starved, and chained for days at a time.
The NBC story also indicates that Desiree Stan obtained her guide dog after a friend talked her into it. Apparently Mr. Murphy believes that blind people cannot make any major decision--even one as intimate as the choice of travel tool--without sighted intervention. Like all major commitments working a guide dog should be the idea of the person who will actually do it. Guide dog handlers must feed, groom, and bathe dogs regularly. Just as regularly we clean relief areas, control parasites, and schedule veterinary visits. Without the care and affection of her mistress, a guide dog has no incentive to work. A guide dog handler must like dogs well enough to have one near her virtually twenty-four hours
a day for eight to twelve years. She must be mature enough to face difficult decisions at the end of her dog's life. Euthanasia is often the most merciful option, but that does not make it easy to do.
"Dateline's" brief allusion to the fact that "some partnerships don't work out" is, to put it kindly,
inadequate. The problems related to guide dogs could be solved or prevented if the people involved had a positive attitude about blindness. Sappy drivel keeps many fine candidates for guide dogs from using them. Many blind people are unalterably opposed to the whole concept because of the misperceptions which surround it. Often such individuals have excellent travel skills, which the use of a guide dog could enhance. Frequently they are also discerning and thoughtful--traits which make for good dog ownership of any kind.
Most distressing of all is the pervasive contempt with which Ms. Stan and Mr. Murphy seem to regard blind people. Ms. Stan receives Mr. Murphy's adulation when she says that blindness cannot "have me"--whatever that means. Undoubtedly blindness does not define her entire life, but whether she
likes it or not, Desiree Stan is a blind woman. Mr. Murphy describes Ms. Stan as a "scrapper." If her blindness is irreversible, Ms. Stan has two choices: live with it or die. She's living with it. So?
After accomplishing some rudimentary independent travel with her dog, Ms. Stan proclaims, "Not bad for a blind woman!" If this was supposed to be a joke, many of us are not laughing. Unfunny, self-deprecating comments and anecdotes about blindness are as unflattering as the performances of black vaudeville stars of a bygone era. Fortunately for all America, those hideous displays stopped when courageous black actors and actresses refused to shuffle and grin.
Describing her fear, Ms. Stan says, "I thought we [she and her children] would end up living in a basement on public assistance." She did not need to finish her thought; her meaning was glaringly clear. "I thought I would be on public assistance like all those stupid blind people to whom I am superior."
Desiree Stan would do well to get to know some of those blind people--including some who have had the misfortune to need public assistance--before thrusting her nose into the air. For me, at least, the best advice, assistance, and support in meeting the challenges of blindness have come from other blind people. Many blind people who receive public assistance do not do so by choice or because they lack skills and ability. They have been forced to accept a government check because discrimination against the blind, statutes notwithstanding, continues unabated. Other blind people work in vending facilities or sheltered workshops for the same reason. Despite despicable treatment, many of these folks volunteer in their churches or synagogues or do other community-based charity work in an effort to leave the world a little better than they found it.
That, too, would be an interesting issue for "Dateline" to tackle, but it would require the rest of society to do some unpleasant soul-searching. No more cliches. No warm fuzzies to make the majority feel wonderful while a minority lives in abject and unrelenting poverty.
Even blind professionals suffer. Though we may have fine credentials, too few people believe that a blind person could actually attain that sort of success. To illustrate, take the case of a young, blind woman lawyer. She had received some academic recognition during law school and had written a winning appellate brief when she had less than a year's work experience. At the time in question, she had about four years of work experience in the public and private sectors, doing civil and criminal work. Thinking of trading her solo shingle for an associate's job at a law firm, she tested the waters by sending application materials to several large, well-respected establishments.
To her delight, she received a letter from one of the oldest, most respected firms in the city. The firm was not officially hiring, the letter said, but the senior partner would like to meet with her at her earliest convenience. Enclosed with the letter was a brochure about the firm. The young lawyer perused the brochure with great interest and anticipation.
The big day came, and the attorney carefully followed the rules of workplace etiquette. She was punctual, clad in the requisite business attire, carrying the obligatory briefcase. Along with extra copies of her resume and writing samples, the briefcase contained client files for the work she had to do after the meeting.
She soon discovered that the senior partner had relevant questions on his mind. "You're very attractively dressed," he observed. "Tell me, how do you put your clothes on in the morning?"
Under the table, the lawyer's scrupulously clean Labrador Retriever lay like an ebony statue, evincing no unappealing sights, sounds, or odors.
"Does your dog have control of her bodily functions?" the senior partner asked next.
He provided the lawyer with a motion, which he wanted her to evaluate within forty-eight hours. The lawyer analyzed the material within twenty-four hours and called back as requested. The senior partner refused to take her calls--uninterested, apparently, in the Erie Problem and other conflicts of law.
He told me how much he admired me, too.
The potential for harm by this and similar broadcasts cannot be overstated. All people deserve to fulfill their dreams without having to jump arbitrary hurdles. Every individual deserves the chance to win real respect, not the saccharine sentimentality accorded to those from whom nothing meritorious is really expected. Tragically, NBC really blew it this time.
P.S.: For accurate information about blindness, contact the National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, (410) 659-9314.