by Heather Bird
From the Editor: Heather wears many hats in the NFB. She is the chapter president in Rochester, New York, president of the affiliate’s guide dog users group, and the secretary of the Parents of Blind Children division in her state. She serves as the coordinator of the BELL Academy for the affiliate, and she enjoys her other hobbies and interests in what spare time she has left. Here is what she says about guide dogs and canes and not guide dogs versus canes:
I recently and suddenly needed to say goodbye to my guide dog Ilsa. She went in a matter of hours from an energetic, intense, and vibrant dog to an apathetic, lethargic, and distressed dog. Within two days, she was gone. This was due to a very fast-growing and therefore hard-to-detect cancer, and I was devastated.
I have been working guide dogs since age sixteen, and I have been a white cane user since I was a preschooler. I grew up watching my mother use a succession of guide dogs, as well as a white cane. She took me all over with her, demonstrating a variety of travel, advocacy, and problem-solving skills. My mother made sure that I had a tiny little toddler-size white cane in my hand when I turned two, fought with the school district to ensure that I learned Braille even though they were intent on pushing print, and refused to let me settle for lower expectations from those around me. I knew I wanted a guide dog from the time I was about five or six, and I also knew that I needed to have good cane and other travel skills before that was ever going to happen.
I graduated from The Seeing Eye in 2016 with Ilsa, and she had been at my side since the beginning of my relationship with the NFB. This was in the summer of 2016, when I met with the representatives from our state affiliate board in the process of chartering a chapter in Rochester, New York. Then, in the fall of 2016 when I attended my very first NFB state convention, Ilsa was there at my side when I accepted the charter for our chapter. Ilsa had been at every chapter meeting that I have led and took me to my first NFB national convention in 2017. She was there at my side when I was elected to serve on the board of NAGDU in 2019. She worked confidently through the streets of New York City whenever I traveled there to teach the parents workshop concurrent with our New York State BELL Program. She laid patiently under a table watching me wiggle and twist and jump around teaching some energetic dance/exercise moves on a large Braille cell on the floor while conducting a mini-BELL presentation at our 2019 state convention. She lay patiently as blind children petted her and explored her harness. I explained to them that, while it might be great to get a guide dog someday, they were going to have to have excellent white cane skills and orientation and mobility skills to be successful in life, regardless of whether they ever got a guide dog or not.
Ilsa heeled patiently along beside me or heeled not so patiently with my husband while I demonstrated cane skills to BELL students and their parents during our enhanced BELL activities in 2021. She had been at my side at every single NFB national and state convention, our New York State leadership training, and the BELL training, both held at the Jernigan Institute. She has been prominent at our state legislative seminars in 2017, 2018, and 2019. She loved dashing at high speed through the tunnel connecting the legislative office building to the Capitol building. The picture I supplied to accompany an article several years ago regarding the benefits of the free white cane program featured myself and my two children, all with our NFB white canes and Ilsa, sitting proudly up in her harness on the front steps of our home.
Ilsa was also there, ready to jump into my arms when I picked her up from guide dog daycare while playing at the Beep Baseball World Series. She rode the Hogwarts Express with me at Universal Studios. She was there on my son’s first day of preschool and kindergarten. She got very adept at helping me to sneak stealthily along behind my preschooler while he practiced independent cane travel on our ten-block-long route from home to preschool and back. The picture of Ilsa and me running together in a 5K has appeared on the screens during many Zoom meetings for NFB- and non-NFB related activities over the last two years.
I had an especially proud moment during the 2017 National Convention while I was assisting a friend who, due to a temporary medical concern, needed to use a wheelchair. The strategy we developed involved my propelling the manual wheelchair while my friend used her cane to check the area in front of us for obstacles. I had Ilsa on a special hands-free leash, and she walked nicely alongside and was especially helpful when we needed to explore a bit before proceeding. Our biggest concern was that we avoid the stairs. When we knew we were close, I left my friend temporarily and asked Ilsa to find them, which she did. I then turned around and squared off with the top of the stairs at my back and asked Ilsa to find my friend again. This she promptly did. With those two reference points, I was able to proceed onward, giving the stairs a wide berth. We used a similar strategy when I asked Ilsa to find the elevators. I confidently returned to my friend, knowing that muscle memory and navigation skills could get us efficiently to the elevator.
While walking along through one of the main corridors, Lucas Frank, an experienced and longtime trainer at The Seeing Eye, came up alongside us. “Oh boy,” I thought, “We’re in for it; he’s going to ask me why I’m not using my dog; he’s going to tell me what we’re doing is dangerous; he’s going to criticize me; he’s going to take my dog away!” All of these things flashed through my mind. Instead, he simply asked me, “Hey, how’s it going?” After I told him it was going well, he inquired, casual as can be, “Do you need any help?” When I told him, “No, we’ve got it,” in a relaxed tone of voice, he simply said something like, “Oh, OK, cool, see you around.” I was so proud. I was proud of myself, I was proud of Ilsa, I was proud of my guide dog school, I was proud of my friend’s cane skills, I was proud of the teamwork between the three of us—myself, Ilsa, and my friend—and I was proud of the respectful attitude and high expectations of my guide dog training program. I was proud to be surrounded by so many people traveling independently with their canes and guide dogs all around us.
When we left for the urgent care vet, Ilsa was tired and wobbly on her feet, and I was planning to simply take her on her leash. But I brought my harness with me in case we needed to take a rideshare at some point in our travels. She kept insisting on putting her head through the harness and seemed distraught, so I put it on her and worked her. Usually, you provide steady constant backwards pressure on the harness so that the dog can provide resistance and pull forward to guide you. This time I provided some pressure backwards but most of the pressure gently upwards. This was to help support Ilsa so that she could walk on her own and do the job that she loved doing so much. It’s not fair to expect the dog who is injured or ill to guide and help keep the team safe, so I used my cane in the other hand to check for obstacle clearance. This allowed me to safely give her back some of the independence and dignity that she has provided to me over the years.
The tagline of The Seeing Eye is “Independence with dignity since 1929,” and dignity is something that I value greatly. While it is not fair and it is not right, it is true that often the general public perceives guide dog handlers as more competent travelers than cane travelers. This incorrect assumption stems from the fact that most people don’t understand how white canes are meant to work. That is, when blind travelers encounter an obstacle with a tap or a bump, the ignorant public believes that this is an accident, a problem, a mistake, and it appears to them to be awkward, or, in their uninformed view, makes the cane traveler look bumbling or awkward. This, of course, is pure nonsense, since a cane bumping into something is doing exactly what it is intended to do—that is, to alert the user to the presence of an obstacle so that they can explore and then navigate around that obstacle safely.
I have spent a great deal of time over the years explaining to kids that they shouldn’t be afraid to find things with their canes. At the same time, I explain to their parents that panicking, grabbing their kids, or scolding them for contacting objects with their canes is ludicrous. However, being able to zip quickly from point A to point B using a guide dog has real advantages. This is so, especially in an unfamiliar environment, one that I don’t need to navigate again anytime soon. Certainly we face times when learning all the obstacles with a cane isn’t really necessary. Being able to maneuver without distractions with my guide dog while the public looks on appreciatively certainly helps enhance my sense of dignity. I don’t take that for granted and whenever possible I strive to educate the public that traveling independently can be accomplished by a competent traveler whether they have a cane or a harness in their hand. Further, I try to help them understand that canes and guide dogs are simply tools and that attitude, confidence, and a whole variety of skills including map reading, cardinal directions, route reversal, use of GPS, and other technologies goes into making a good traveler. This is so whether they use a cane, a guide dog, or both.
The tagline of the NFB is “Live the life you want” and for me, living the life that I want involves having a well-trained, well-socialized, and well-behaved guide dog as well as a cane of the proper length, weight, and style. Of course, these serve along with a whole host of other tools, techniques, and skills at my disposal to meet my travel needs.
By the time we had left the urgent care vet and were transitioning to the emergency vet, Ilsa was truly struggling to walk, and I picked her up and carried her. I used my white cane while I did it. Ilsa worked hard to keep us safe for six years, and because I kept my cane skills up, I was able to, in the time of her need, pick her up and help keep her safe or at least more comfortable. There was nothing anyone could do at that point to keep her safe from the cancer that was killing her. If I hadn’t brought my cane along or hadn’t kept my cane skills up, I might have had to allow someone else to carry her or been separated from her while she went on a stretcher or some other conveyance. Instead, I was able to hold her close and carry her where she needed to go.
When someone tells me, “When I get a guide dog, then I’m throwing my cane away and never using it again,” I tell them, none too gently, “Well, then you’re not being a very good handler are you? The two of you are a team, you are partners. That dog is responsible for helping to keep the two of you safe, as are you when your dog needs you. That cane that you hate so much should be a tool you can use to help return the favor. If you can’t do that, then you can’t fully care for your dog.” It may sound harsh, but that’s how I feel. When you’re responsible for a pet, a guide dog, or a child, then you need to use all the tools and skills at your disposal to do the best you can to care for them and keep them healthy, happy, and safe.
I have an acquaintance whose guide dog was suddenly injured (this was before ridesharing really existed), and she could not get a cab company to come and pick them up. None of their sighted friends or family were available to help. She went and got her kid’s wagon, lined it with blankets, put her dog in it, got out her white cane, and walked over twenty blocks to the veterinary clinic. Did her cane whack and smack and bang into all sorts of newspaper boxes, trash cans, and manhole covers on the way to the vet? I’m sure it did. And did it look awkward or bumbling to the uninformed sighted public who might’ve been watching? Yes, quite likely. Did that matter to my friend? Heck no! Did that matter to her dog? Absolutely not. Her dog’s injury was treated, and her guide recovered and was back to work soon. My friend’s cane skills saved her dog from a lot of suffering and waiting around. Her proficiency with a cane kept the two of them from being separated and got her dog care faster than she otherwise would’ve been able to if she had had to rely on a sighted person to come and pick them up hours later. Her dog trusted her just as Ilsa trusted me to keep her safe and take care of them, and with the help of our white canes, we did just that.
I can tell you that ugly crying for hours into a COVID mask can give one a heck of a migraine. By the time Ilsa passed away right around sunset, I was in severe physical and emotional pain. My head felt like it was going to explode, my heart was aching, and I felt empty inside, hurting like I’d been kicked in the gut. The well-meaning clinic staff offered to take my hand and offered me an arm so they could guide me out. Some people, when they’re hurting, want to fall into someone’s arms, get a pat on the back, or have someone hold their hand. I am not one of those sorts of people. I didn’t want to be touched by anyone; I didn’t want to touch anyone; I wanted to be by myself with my thoughts and my memories and my grief. Because I had my cane, I was able to make my own way out of the vet clinic. I used my cane, I carried her harness, I cried, I called an Uber, I rode home in silence, and I walked in the door, and hung her harness on its hook, but this time I added her collar as well. Beside it I placed my white cane.
I knew I would apply for a successor guide and that I had hundreds of miles yet to walk, some with a cane and some with a dog. But right then, all I wanted to do was crawl into bed, cry my eyes out, and then sleep like the dead for about twelve hours.
Finding a new match could take a month or perhaps two years, because The Seeing Eye puts a lot of effort into finding the correct match. The school endeavors to call people into class, not based on how long they’ve been waiting or how prestigious they are or how much they’ve donated to the school or how much they call and pester the school for a class date. The important thing is to have a good match that will increase the success of the team. Whenever I find myself called up for a class, I know that I will walk in the door using a white cane, not walking sighted guide with a trainer. I will walk out the door holding a harness handle, with my white cane folded in my purse. On my way in and on my way out, I will walk with my head held high, with independence and dignity, living the life I want.