by David Cohen
From the Editor: How many times have we heard the expression that finds itself the title of this article? It is said so often that we come to believe it as true, but is seeing really believing?
I remember presiding at a state convention and being approached while on stage by someone who needed change for a twenty dollar bill. We handled the transaction quietly, and I was relieved to turn my attention once again to the presenter. About an hour later I was again approached, this time during a presentation by our rehabilitation agency's director. This time I was told that someone had left the restaurant without paying, and the hotel staff was angry. The person who had eaten and left was developmentally disabled and did not understand what she had done, so again I reached for my wallet.
Later in the day we had a contest in which our chapters compete to raise the most money for the affiliate. The chapter that won had about twenty dollars more than the second place winner, and the argument began to be made that some of us in a position to know the totals helped the first-place chapter beat out the second-place chapter. I was accused directly of giving money to change the results, and when I denied that I had made a contribution to either chapter, I was told, "Gary, you have to realize that not everyone in this room is blind. Some of our people can see, and we saw you—right there on the stage—exchanging money." Now it is one thing to expect fairness in a contest and to ask if the state president, who should presumably be impartial, had donated to one chapter in favor of another, but the thrust of the argument was that my denial that I was giving money in the contest was provably untrue because I was seen pulling money from my wallet. Seeing is believing; seeing is truth; seeing is knowing, but I hadn’t contributed a dime to either the first- or second-place contestants and certainly had not tried to change the outcome of the contest. Many of us have experiences in which those around us gently or not so gently remind us that seeing is believing. Here is David Cohen’s account of one such encounter in his life:
If ever there was a loaded statement, "seeing is believing" packs the equivalent of the funniest Looney Tunes gags. I'm thinking of Yosemite Sam in the episode about the singing sword, where he finds himself, along with the loveably innocent resident dragon, inside the castle turret, surrounded with explosives and the dragon's desperate need to sneeze fire. (To see this episode, go to <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUCUQJBmpdQ>.)
Seeing is believing—it is seemingly obvious, easy to say, easy to remember. But observing and allowing the facts to be revealed takes time and patience, and very often that which is revealed needs no words of explanation, for the truth of it is a feeling of knowing. If any words at all are spoken, the result is an "Oh my God" moment, or what is otherwise referred to as an epiphany.
Those of us who work hard at changing public attitudes about blindness are often left to wonder, "How many times have my attempts at public education about blindness resulted in an epiphany?" Probably we wish that experience was more common than it is, but we do our best to soldier on.
I have two black dogs which I walk routinely. The elder is Maggie, and she is 100 percent Labrador. The younger male is Snerdley, and he is at least half Labrador and possibly more—he is always mistaken for Labrador, but his crescent-curve tail, his pinched-short ears, and his twin elongated canine teeth, which bow inwards to his mouth, lead me to think he's got something else in his bloodline…possibly Burmese Python or perhaps the vampire Lestat. So, when I am asked about the dogs, I like to say that I have 1.5 servings of the recommended daily allowance of Labrador.
The three of us go walking at least twice each day. On the day of the incident I'm about to describe, it was late afternoon on Labor Day, and there had been a parade earlier in the day. Because today is a holiday, the traffic on State Route 48 passes at a reduced volume—like a Sunday evening as opposed to the normal weekday ever-present and rushing volume one can expect from the most heavily-traveled road in the state of Ohio's second largest suburb.
The sidewalk on which we are walking is blocked by twin aluminum bleachers positioned outside the board of education building two blocks north of my home, and additionally the city has stationed portable toilets intermittently a few yards from the corners of select blocks both north and south along the one-mile stretch of the parade's route. Years ago when I was passing one such port-o-john and struck the backside of the molded plastic enclosure with my cane a bit too forcefully, a surprised voice called out from within, "Just a minute. Occupied!" The smile that spread across my face had a life of its own as I recalled how many times I had accidentally knocked on the doors of hotel rooms, apartments, and cubicle walls at work before I thought to apply a softer touch in such situations.
On this day we circumnavigate the portable toilet stationed on the sidewalk near my driveway. I knock on and identify with my cane the wooden sawhorse barriers placed in the crosswalk of this street to block any through traffic from entering the parade procession. My cane tap echoes the location of the upcoming curb, and I sweep for the wheelchair ramp on the other side. We three step up onto the next block, and Maggie stops after a few yards to sniff at a familiar spot. Ahead of me I hear a voice and with it several sets of footsteps. As the voice draws closer I realize that it is the voice of a man, and walking along beside and behind him are young people.
"Stay to the side everybody. Those dogs are working," he says. As the group passes, I exchange neighborly greetings perfunctorily because it's important that my primary focus remain on Maggie, who on occasion relieves herself at this spot and forces me to attend to my civic duty and pick up.
"Hi. Hello. How are ya?” they call.
As the young people pass, I smile, but do not take my attention away from Maggie. She is rooting in the grass at the end of her leash, like an Iowa hog, and snorting just as loudly. This informs me that she is not thinking of relieving but searching for edibles left over from the parade. If you have a Labrador of your own or have ever lived with such a dog, you know that no other appetite on earth compares to that of the Lab—not even that of professional athletes injected with HGH and steroids. I do believe that, if I ever spilled mustard or ketchup on her, she'd consume herself into nothingness and find a way of communicating with me spiritually to beg for something else to eat.
I give Maggie a cursory leash tug, signaling her to come along, and the three of us are walking northwards again. I have the twin leashes in my left hand, my cane in my right. I always keep the dogs on my left, which has taken some patience and a lot of repetition to train into them. Obviously I cannot have one or both of them crossing in front of me to my right side to sniff, but sometimes they cannot resist. “Two legs or four, you cannot beat the arc of the cane,” I like to say, and many times I've tickled the pad of a dog foot. Dog feet are so cool, and especially Labrador duck-style feet.
The way I manage walking two dogs is to use common stainless steel choker chains so that I can heel them both quickly with a catch-and-release tug/signal, and shorten the length of leash or leashes as necessary. Most of the time the walk is smooth, but sometimes one dog or the other will try to stop or go too fast. Maggie is most often the culprit, but sometimes Snerdley sees a rabbit or cat, and he rockets ahead and will cross to my right side. But, when this happens, I simply stop, reattach my shoulder to its socket joint, and try to think of something other than the guilt I feel at restraining Snerdley from acting on his nature. I try to tell myself that I have equally disappointing experiences in my life, one being that Chipotle does not deliver to my house.
"I know, Snerdley. I know. You missed the rabbit. I love fast food too but can't always have it," I tell him, and he chuffs at me disgustedly. A twin portal blow through his dog nostrils is his way of dismissing me, I'm sure.
The three of us have been walking together for five years now. Prior to engaging in this twin walk, I would walk one dog and return home to walk the other, but after months of their competitive bickering and my hearing, "She always gets to go first," and "That's my leash! Why doesn't he get his own?" I'd had enough and made the change to walking them simultaneously.
At present both dogs are pulling ahead strongly, both competing to be the first to capture the freshest inhalation of oxygen, and I pick up my own pace. The sidewalk beneath my feet soon begins to slope downward and informs me that we're approaching the end of this block. I mentally throw my ears forward to the cross-street, the crosswalk, and I include the passing traffic on State Route 48 to my left as I shorten their leashes to bring them closer to me. Hearing nothing ahead of me, we cross this street without stopping and maintain our pace. It's a perfectly executed crossing; even the Olympic orientation and mobility Russian judges are pleased, and their scorecard displays a 9.7 rating for my performance. For me it is just one of those days when alignment is Zen-like, no other people approach with dogs, and no remnant of parade food has been discarded in the crosswalk to distract my pack.
In this next block are the aluminum bleachers. They block the entire sidewalk, which is at least twice the width of your average suburban sidewalk path because it accommodates a very nicely cobbled-brick area surrounding a city bus stop and shelter. I am quite familiar with the parade bleacher setup because at least twice in the early years of my residency here I took a five foot nine-inch bleacher seat to my forehead, with my cane sweeping beneath and my ears and mind elsewhere. I was either dreaming about Diane Sawyer's voice in my computer's next-generation synthesizer or perhaps thinking of eating a Frisbee-sized Wendy's double burger with everything.
But today, in contrast to previous years when I took those headshots, I have stepped off the sidewalk well before the bleachers, and, along with the dogs, I walk up the sloping grass of the board of education lawn to go around the blockade.
"Hello. I like your dogs," a woman's voice speaks. Maggie, Snerdley, and I are heading directly for her until Maggie stops short to root at what I can only imagine is food droppings from parade-attendees.
"Oh I'm sorry," the woman says, as I tug on Maggie's leash, giving Maggie a smart leash correction of the sort I learned how to administer when in guide dog school twenty years ago. The correction is not a harsh one—a mental check at best—and the equivalent of a tap on the shoulder.
“I'm sorry," the woman repeats. "I know they're working... I shouldn't have distracted them." She says this apologetically, but I can hear that she's smiling because—well—dogs have this effect on people.
"No problem," I say, loosening my hold on Maggie. She's now sweep-sniffing and no longer rooting, which tells me she's not eating or about to eat.
"I know you're not supposed to pet working dogs, but can I..." the woman asks me.
I worked with a black Labrador guide dog for many years and never did get used to this request. In it is both the acknowledgement that the dog must not be distracted and the dismissal of the admonition. I sometimes wonder if these people might just as easily say, "I know you're not supposed to smoke in the maternity ward, but can I?"
"I know the sign reads twelve items or less, but I have three boxes of cereal—isn't that one cereal?"
"I know it's a school zone and the cautionary light is flashing, but, come on man, this is a Porsche."
Alas, I give in. "Sure," I say, and ask if she attended the parade. I am attempting to avoid another guide dog conversation which, as dog guide users can tell you, is not an easy thing to do. Guide dogs attract interest and questions. Never mind that these are not guide dogs. Seeing is believing, and to this woman I have two canine assistants. I cannot imagine how, with me clearly using my cane, the assumption is so often that these dogs are guides. Isn't it just as likely that I am out collecting dogs, just four short of a sled-dog team? But my experience as a blind man has taught me that we see what we know, and that knowing is not the same as understanding. Knowing is good for multiple-choice tests and Jeopardy, but understanding has very little to do with memorization.
In response to my question about whether she has been here for the parade, she says, "Yes. We're cleaning up and are waiting for the trucks to remove the bleachers. Were you here for the parade?" she asks.
"Yes and no," I tell her. "I live just two blocks south of here and the parade…well, it passes in front of my house. It's like having a marching band playing in your living room," I say to her and feel chills on the nape of my neck as I recall the scene I've just inadvertently described from The Amityville Horror movie.
"Oh I know you," she says. "You're the guy with the dogs," and I desperately hope she's saying that I am the white cane guy with the dogs. But to her I am not the white cane user but the blind guy with two guide dogs, working dogs or service dogs…whatever.
"Yes, that is me," I reply.
"I think these dogs are so amazing…I mean what they do for you," she says, bending over to pet one and then the other.
What do I say? Do I tell her the truth: that my dogs are regular walking, trashcan-sniffing, rabbit-chasing, and obviously harnessless dogs, with no formal training? This is a uniquely dissonant situation, for everything in plain view contradicts the woman's belief. "God, why are you doing this to me?” I ask internally. "Why am I doing this to myself? Please turn my head into a plasma flat screen so I might be seen for who I am and what I am doing," I muse patiently. "Give me the radio voice of Art Schreiber, Rush Limbaugh, or Terry Gross so I might be heard."
"Now where did you get them?" she asks, still petting and cooing to them.
"Maggie is from a breeder in Tampa, and Snerdley comes from the Tampa Humane Society, where he was doing three to six for civil disobedience," I reply.
"Whaaat," she said, laughing at me, but I know she's sincere and believes the twain are working.
"The truth is that neither dog is a working dog," and this I relate seriously. "I sort of rescued them, and they are from Tampa, Florida."
"But they work for you, right?" she states more than asks.
"Nope. This works with me," I say, offering her a soft but sincere smile and holding my cane upright above the recently shorn front lawn I feel beneath my feet. I know my cane's simple utilitarian power, but most folk know it only as an accessory to the DMV driver exam picture and functionally like a candy-striped barber pole mounted on the wall outside the shop.
"They're not working for you... They're not service animals?" she replies, and I can hear the disbelief in her voice.
"No, they're served animals," I reply. "They get served meals in the morning and in the afternoon, dog snacks from Who Laid the Rail, and routine walks with me to the pet store, where they are served treats and God only knows how many discounts that I am unaware of which they steal from the store's lower shelves."
The woman is laughing. I am laughing. I think she's definitely a dog-person. This mistake has occurred so many times since I began walking the dogs I've cared for in the past ten years since my former guide died. Who knows—maybe I've educated someone. Even better, maybe she'll want two dogs of her own.
But the thought that she may have been listening and now understands is soon dislodged. "I don't understand. I always thought they guided you. I've seen them take you across the street," she says.
Take me across the street—I incredulously consider this. Chinese emperors are taken places by rickshaw inside the Imperial City. The New York Yankees are taken by floats or convertibles through the streets of Brooklyn in parades celebrating victory, but the last time I was taken across a street was by my mother in the early seventies.
"Do you have a dog?" I asked in a mild tone. I don't want to communicate my frustration at her not getting that I am just a man out walking his dogs.
“Yes, a Beagle mix," she says and, hearing Beagle, I so want to reply "BeagleJuice, BeagleJuice, BeagleJuice," but even I know now is the time for seriousness.
"When you walk the Beagle, the Beagle sometimes walks ahead of you and sometimes at your side. Beagle turns at all the routine corners and after certain street crossings. Beagle marks territory at the usual places and walks down curbs and up wheelchair ramps along with you." I am explaining, and she is understanding. This I know because she is now speaking to me engagingly, and, truth be told, she is laughing at herself, which I can appreciate because I've walked into bleachers in broad daylight.
"Oh my God. You're just walking these dogs. You're blind, though, right?" she asks, and she is most definitely in need of confirmation. If ever there was an opportune time for me to walk into a tree or bleachers, it is now. This would be called taking one for the team.
"This is true,” I say. You who work to change public attitudes know how it is, that moment when you are engaged by a person unfamiliar with blindness but who gets it because of something you’ve said. Elation! Now the person who was once ignorant simply wants you to confirm the obvious—hurray. It’s the experience one has when trying to convince someone about the usefulness of Braille and then having the light come on for them when you press the right button on the elevator and begin heading for your floor.
"Yes," I reply, now uncomfortably looking directly at her for only a second or two.
"Ohhhh," she exclaims, and she's cool in her understanding and not at all uncomfortable with the word "blind," which I really appreciate.
"Sweet!" I'm elated. She's comfortable with her new understanding—I can get on with my walk.
But, not so fast. I'm hearing the dismantling of square one of this understanding I have helped to build—the foundation is not as strong as I had hoped.
"But how...You just walk…alone…with that," she states a bit incredulously, pointing at my cane as if I'm holding a soiled diaper.
I have a choice to make. I can prolong the exchange, which has turned into a whole bunch of everything regarding blindness, and maybe dispel her disbelief. Or I can make another joke and tell her that yes I do use the cane, it works for free, I incur no health insurance costs, it requires no room and board, does not cheat at cards, and also functions as a sweeping tool for the identification and retrieval of all the single socks that have gone AWOL beneath beds and behind the washing machine and dryer in my home. I could answer yes, excuse myself, continue my walk—or I could give it one last try.
“My name is David," I say, holding out my hand to her and we shake. "This cane is a literal extension of my arm and hand, with five fingers each and an eyeball for a fingerprint. It informs me of everything I need to know sixty-five inches ahead of my scheduled arrival. It really works wonderfully in its simplicity."
"Oh I guess so," she replied, in a tone of challenged consideration. "I never really thought…but…but…just that cane…don't you need a service dog?"