Blind woman with cane sitting on park bench.

Why I Struggle to Accept My Cane as a Legally Blind Person

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There’s a saying to never judge a book by its cover. But upon hearing the term “legally blind” associated with me, many people automatically assume I come packaged with a white cane and sunglasses.

Except in most cases, I don’t. But I do have one on deck.

When I was in sixth grade, my vision therapy teacher started taking me out of school every week to partake in mobility lessons and community inclusion. Amongst the many tools and tricks used for me to interact with society independently, the white cane was introduced. The goal of the cane was to be used as an identifier, to show people you are in need of assistance should something come up.

From the first day I had it until now, I feel weird as hell using it.

Although I am legally blind, my vision is just enough to distinguish obstacles like window panes and stairs, which a cane helps its holder navigate around. So I never really saw the point in using it — although, to be fair, I have since cracked it out a few times when I moved down here as I learned the traffic patterns and crosswalks I would need to be accustomed to in my neighborhood. And I have also used it on days where my migraines would make me see the world with one eye open. Nevertheless, I still felt odd bringing it out. Not because of the attention I would receive while using it, but something else that is hard to put into words.

I want so desperately to try to use my cane more, as it will help me come to terms with myself and my own awareness of my body and disability, but at times, I feel there is a stigma involved. It’s almost like that “fat lady on a scooter” stigma when you see one in a WalMart. Why do you need a scooter when you can walk? Why do I need my cane when I can (sort of) see around me?

I feel almost like an imposter, using something intended for someone far “worse off” than me. As if whatever ability to see I have isn’t enough to warrant its use. I don’t want to be that person on a bus with a cane as I am on my phone checking Facebook. It looks weird… and it becomes hard to talk to strangers who may want to accuse me of some wrongdoing. I hate dealing with altercation, especially if it’s in public. I just want to be me, no questions asked.

Once in a while, I take my trusty cane out for a spin. But for the most part, she rests in my closet, waiting for the next new adventure into the great unknown.

As to when that will be, the world may never know.

This post originally appeared on Legally Blind Bagged.

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To My Guide Dog's Puppy Raisers: Thank You

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I thought the sudden snow storm that Saturday morning was nature’s way of telling me I did not have to go tour pre-schools for my almost 4-year-old daughter. My husband, on the other hand, was hell-bent on not letting a little snow get in our way. We had arranged for baby-sitting with my in-laws and headed out the door that morning. Me, my husband, and my guide dog, Frances.

“Goodbye, Mama,” my almost 4-year-old shouted as I grabbed my purse. “I hope you have fun looking at my new school.”

I wanted to throw up. Literally. Even with September almost nine months away, the thought of my “baby” leaving me every day, entrusting her safety to strangers, filled my mind with dread. When we finally found ourselves sitting in the parking lot that snowy January morning, my husband assured me we were doing the right thing. Frances snuck her head behind the back seat and licked my ear. “Let’s go, girl.” I said.  And with that, she hopped out of the car and I snapped the leather handle into the harness. “Forward, Franny.” There was no turning back now.

The weather had deterred a lot of people from attending the open house that morning, placing more unwanted attention on my husband and I, the obviously nervous blind mother and her snow-covered guide dog. When we finally were escorted into what could quite possibly be my daughter’s classroom, I felt as though I was going to have a panic attack. All I could see were clothes lines with papers hanging from them, the silhouette of a wooden toy kitchen and endless rows of tiny desks. My eyesight prevented me from seeing any further and the negative self-talk commenced in my head:

How are you going to get her here every day? 

What if the kids pick on her because I’m blind?

Am I going to be able to volunteer in the classroom?

Will the teacher…

My last thought was interrupted because Frances decided to intercede. My beautiful, furry partner pressed her body close to mine. Franny lifted her head and looked up at me, as if to say, “Hey, Mom, we’ve got this. You and me. We’ve got this.” And that’s when I thought of you, her puppy raisers, and how much your immense sacrifice has impacted my family.

Puppy raisers like yourselves play such an integral role in preparing these remarkable dogs to be our guides. I want you to know that I think of your sacrifice during times like these. When I feel the foreboding sense of doubt in my abilities to live an independent life, it gives me strength to consider how you and your family volunteered to take in an adorable, cuddly, puppy.

Nobody asked you. Nobody forced you. You knew the commitment involved. You knew it was going to be hard. As Frances’ raisers, you looked after her, cared for her, carefully laying the foundation for her training. For close to a year, you kept and loved the dog fate had decided would come to me, all the while knowing that one day you would say good-bye, perhaps wondering if you would ever see her again.

I don’t pretend to know why you and your family chose to make such a heart-wrenching sacrifice. I can only tell you what that sacrifice has provided for me as a wife and mother of two little girls.

My husband no longer worries when I leave the house alone. Fears about me falling or getting lost are a distant memory now that I have Franny by my side. I can pick up that container of strawberries and bushel of bananas at the grocery store 14 blocks from my home – alone. I can attend work functions without loading two kids into car seats and being chauffeured by my spouse. I can even walk to Starbucks and get a cup of hot chocolate on my own, 20 minutes of mom-free time, where I get that much needed break to reconnect with myself.  Having Frances has given me that – you have given me that.

My daughters, ages 2 and 3 love that yellow Labrador as much as any child could ever love a dog. They hug her, play dress up with her, invite her to tea parties. All the while, “St. Frances” puts up with being squeezed, shoved, and adorned with pearls and tiaras. When my daughters wake up every morning, Frances circles each of them, her tail intently wagging, as she sniffs, licks and showers them with affection. While I will attribute some of her temperament to Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s fantastic breeding program, I would be remiss if I did not give your family credit for part of the calmness and gentleness in her demeanor. Undoubtedly, in her training, you must have had our Franny around children because she has happily assumed her role as backup mother for my daughters.

There is a piece of your family that beats within the heart of my dog. I feel it every single day when I grip Frances’ harness. I think of you every time I make it to the mailbox or find that elusive flight of stairs. I think of you on days it rains, or snows, and I’m still able to make it to that doctor’s appointment without canceling. There are times I have even thought of you when I was able to find the ladies room with my little girl who “really had to go.” A part of you is with us every single day, on every single route.

With pre-school fast approaching, maybe you can relate to the anxiety I’m having over letting go of my little girl. It must be very similar to how your family felt the day you let go of Frances, so another person you never met could benefit from her training.

I want you to know this amazing creature we both have grown to love is more than just my guide dog. She’s more than a mobility tool. She has become my partner, my friend in blindness, and my partner in crime. Every day Frances gives me confidence, self-assurance, and a level of independence I had only dreamed possible. So thank you to Frances’ puppy raisers and to Guiding Eyes for the Blind, for giving this mother of two my four-legged angel, complete with leather harness.

With Franny by my side, I know I’ll be able to navigate pre-school. After all, “We’ve got this.”

Follow this journey on Blind Motherhood.

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How a TV Show Taught Me About the 'Fringe' Benefits of Blindness

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For some people with significant vision impairments, especially those who were born legally or totally blind, their limited sight may not feel like a disability. Instead, they may simply view it as just another physical trait – one that is naturally addressed in their daily development growing up along with race, gender, body stature, and other characteristics. However, for others such as myself who lost sight as an adult, the lack of eyesight oftentimes represents a traumatic divergence in one’s entire way of life.

In my case, I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) at 30 years old. I spent the next couple of years viewing my degenerating visual clarity and inevitable blindness as a looming dark shadow on my future aspirations. As the rods and cones in my eyes eroded, so did my
hopes and dreams for a normal, happy life in my career and with my family. Even simple mundane activities such as watching TV became frustratingly impossible to attempt without extreme anxiety. Would I be able to clearly follow along? Would I catch on to the comedic sight gags? Would my family notice if I didn’t? Would anyone be annoyed if I asked them yet again to put something on for me? These were the kind of questions I constantly thought about each time I wanted to tune in to any show.

The TV series “Fringe” started airing in September 2008. I vividly remember this not only because of the show’s innovative storylines and concepts, but also because it was at the beginning of my medical mystery. I was diagnosed with RP earlier that year. So while
scientific phenomena were being explored in this intriguing new fascination of
mine, I was starting my own journey down a path of scientific wonderment. With the advice of my doctors, I decided to try a variety of regiments with several different medications in attempt to slow down, or possibly even stop, the degeneration of my eyesight. Just as the “Fringe” scientists and agents, such as the main character Peter Bishop, were on a mission to save the world, I was on a mission to save my vision.

Unfortunately, none of the injections, pills, or examinations I subjected myself to resulted in any Peter Bishop-esque miracle. In fact, the only thing the experiments seemed to effectively do was leave me with a sense of brokenness and distract me from my potential rehabilitation. As the rods and cones in my eyes deteriorated, weakening my eyesight, it became more and more difficult for me to watch and enjoy “Fringe.” Without being able to see some of its complicated action sequences and unspoken surprise reveals, I was unable to fully comprehend what was happening as the story developed. “Fringe” went from being my go-to choice for personal chill time to an immediate trigger for tears and anguish. It bothered me that I couldn’t watch it on my own, and it became the ultimate reminder of my emotional spiral toward dependence in virtually all aspects of my life. I hated not having control over my own entertainment desires, but after completing only two of the five seasons, I stopped watching. Still, shame and heartache lingered in my subconscious.

So why am I writing about this now, especially when the show itself ended after its fifth season in 2013? Three years after my initial diagnosis, I finally discovered disability services and vocational rehabilitation. This time, my program’s focus was not on fixing me, but accepting my life in the world of blindness. In a sense, this became my alternate universe, just as Peter Bishop had to come to terms with his existence. I set out on a mission to reevaluate who I was and how I fit into my surroundings. Eventually I found my home not far from where I started, but with a new perspective.

I spent several years learning adaptive forms and methods of tackling daily and professional tasks. I worked hard every day on improving my technical efficiency, embracing my voice for self-advocacy, and building my confidence in comfortably expressing my true interests or goals. Basically, I rediscovered me.

Empowered by my newfound knowledge, skills, and technology, in 2016 I realized I was at last ready to go back and finish the show that for years had plagued my mind as a symbolic marker of the beginning of my lost pleasures. In the course of my training, I was introduced to the amazing concept of audio description as well as text-to-speech screen reader software
programs. Fully equipped with the proper equipment and means of accessing the audio-described version of the “Fringe” series, I was finally able to finish this TV show favorite and completely enjoy it.

I always had the ability to do whatever I set my mind to do; I just needed the right combination of services, tools, and support to help me tap into my own potential. Independently using my computer, navigating the necessary steps to access the form of entertainment I choose, and confidently deciding to relax after fulfilling all my other work and personal responsibilities represents a culmination of all my previous years’ labors merging to create one individual living the life she wants. It demonstrates my rekindled flame of self-determination.

Choosing to watch “Fringe” shows how my refueled and bottomless tank of endurance allows me to face dark fears and bitter challenges. It tells of my resilience, strength, work ethic, and
ableness. In short, watching “Fringe” signifies I am a success!

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Mandy Ree - Blind Advocate

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Mandy Ree is a writer, disability activist and is legally blind.

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The Hidden Joys of Blindness

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Being blind is often not fun. There are challenges and setbacks, disappointments and discouraging moments. But that’s all they are – setbacks. For the most part they are surmountable. In the year that I’ve been blind, I’m continually discovering many new joys of life that I had never noticed before, previously hidden by my vision.

While riding a Milwaukee to Chicago Amtrak for a holiday luncheon, I experienced the rich soundscape comprised of the train horn wistfully blowing as we sped through the small rural towns, the unmistakable ringing of the crossing bells, the murmur of quiet conversations around me, the conductor announcing the stops and the gentle rocking of the cars navigating the rails – that together gave me a strong sense of orientation, making me forget I was even blind. I don’t think that I had ever paid attention to these rich and colorful sensibilities before I had lost my vision. It was my first train trip since I lost my vision, and perhaps a bit ambitious, but I did it. On my own, keenly focused on my other senses, guided by my white cane and electronic navigating tools, all giving me a stronger sense of confidence and independence.

The luncheon went well, but on the return trip I got a bit disoriented in Chicago’s Union Station, causing me to miss my train. I was eventually led to the proper but crowded area, now waiting for a train not expected for another 90 minutes. With a visible disability such as blindness, reinforced by being dragged around by train station personnel, I felt embarrassingly marked as a disabled person and generally shunned. I stood alone while feeling the glances of people around me who seemed to be working hard to be invisible – even though you know they’re there, it seems like they hope someone else will step up and interact with you – as if blindness would be contagious if they got too close.

Then a miracle occurred when I was spotted by another woman, who kindly got up and offered me her seat. I thanked her, but said I could stand and wait for the train. But just then, a seat opened up next to her and I happily seated myself. She offered me some of her coffee on that frigid Chicago night, which I immediately accepted, not only because I really wanted a sip, but to acknowledge her kindness.

Her name is Peggy Anne. We talked until the train came. It turned out that her mother had been blind, thus she knew how to help a blind person without making them feel helpless or pitiful — I am not either. She asked me if I needed assistance, rather than just pulling my arms as many do. She treated me with dignity and respect and did not dwell on my blindness. We quickly became friends as we discussed a myriad of topics and solved many global issues together. We realized we had a lot in common – from life tragedies to blessings, a common spiritual perspective and a mutual ability to overcome life’s obstacles.

I also have a broken ankle and am not able to walk, certainly not all the way up the platform to the “disability” car in front. So I had arranged for a Red Cap, a needed service for us broken-boned blind folks. When the train arrived and started boarding, I waited patiently for the Red Cap, to no avail. Fortunately, my new friend ran out to the conductor to determine what had happened, only to find they had forgotten about the disabled person and said the train had to leave regardless. But due to her determination, she was able to flag down another Red Cap and he quickly got me onto the transport. I was also able to convince him that Peggy Anne was my “seeing-eye friend,” so he got us both onto the train just in time, where we sat together and continued to solve world problems and deepen our friendship.

True friendships are rare. Finding a friend whom you can celebrate all of their being is uncommon. If I was not blind and able to walk, I never would have met Peggy Anne – an amazing person full of kindness and joy, in a season heralded to be all about those kinds of values. I can now better understand what Helen Keller meant when she said, “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” Thank you Peggy Anne for being my friend. You have enlightened my world during this time of lights and bells, cookies and songs and peace on earth.

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8 Potentially Hazardous People You Meet as a Guide Dog Owner

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When you’re working with a guide dog, you will encounter many different kinds of people. While most of these individuals have the purest of intentions, few of them realize how their actions can pose a serious safety hazard for both you and your canine partner. Here are eight potentially hazardous types of people I’ve frequently encountered as a guide dog owner.

1. The Kissing Bandits.

You’ll never actually see these people, and not because you’re blind or visually impaired. These sneaky characters like to lurk amidst the shadows. The only indication of their presence comes in the form of the annoying kissing, smooching and other face-sucking sounds they make in a persistent effort to get your guide dog’s attention. A “Kissing Bandit’s” misguided display of affection is dangerously distracting for both you and your guide dog! Trust me, my dog does not want to kiss you. I don’t want to kiss you! Neither she or I have any idea exactly where your mouth has been. Please go home and smooch your own pooch and let us get back to work.

2. Nostalgics.

Prepare yourself for story hour! Seeing your beautiful guide dog will undoubtedly cause some lovers of your breed to take a stroll down memory lane. “Nostalgics” will stop you dead in your tracks enthusiastically wanting to share stories about their dearly departed “Buddy” or “Lassie” or “Spot.” They will spare no small detail from the time they first laid eyes on their canine companions to every gut wrenching moment leading up to their passing. As someone who has owned and lost many dogs prior to being matched with Frances, I feel for these people, really I do. But when you’ve got a toddler crossing their legs in desperate need of the potty, you’ll need to gently cut these conversations off and keep it moving.

3. Ninjas.

They may not be dressed in black, but “Ninjas” definitely know to sneak up on a blind person. You won’t “see” them coming. Chances are you won’t even hear them coming. They will ignore any “do not pet” markers on your guide dog. They won’t care they are in harness. These people believe they are above asking permission when it comes to touching your dog.  What “Ninjas” want most in the world is to lay their hands on those furry faces or kiss you working dog’s wet nose. The best way to combat a ninja is by giving them a dose of their own medicine. Once bent over or on their knees talking to your dog, grab your harness and maneuver around this perpetrator. “Sorry, my dog is working, got to go!” Evaporate into the night and never look back.

4. The HR’s.

Do guide dogs get sick days? How about vacation time? “HR’s” (short for Human Resources) are overly concerned with labor laws relating to your canine’s work responsibilities. These people will inundate you with questions, sometimes deferring right to your dog for a response. (FYI, Frances won’t answer.) “Are you getting enough rest?” “Is momma’s route too stressful?” “Do you need a spa day at the groomers?” “HR’s” are relentless and won’t give up until you’ve convinced them your guide dog is well-fed, loved and respected as your partner. When I come in contact with an HR, I quickly whip out my cellphone. My screen saver happens to be a picture of Frances in a tiara; proving once and for all that my dog is absolutely treated like royalty when she’s off duty.

5. Smartphone Zombies.

Get off your cell phones, people! While guide dogs are trained to help the blind avoid obstacles on the street, nothing is more unpredictable than a bobbing and weaving “Smartphone Zombie.” Zombies like to walk face down, noses pointed towards their smart phone screens. They rarely look up at the world around them, preferring texting and emoijis to human contact.

One memorable smartphone zombie incident occurred on a cold, December night as my guide dog Frances and I were en route to my local hospital for a doctor’s appointment. As Franny lead me towards the front door of the building, she stopped midway, indicating something was in our path. I extended my hand to find she was alerting me to a wheelchair that had been left outside. That’s when it hit me. Literally. A woman walking with her cell-phone crashed right into me. The phone falling into my coat, right down my cleavage. Yeah, how’s that for awkward.

“You didn’t see me coming?” she snarled.

“No, I didn’t see you; I’m blind.” In my head I was thinking…. Umm. Hello? Woman with a guide dog here.

There was no “I’m sorry,” or “Are you OK?” All the young woman said was, “Well, give me back my cell phone.” I removed my glove and fished out her phone from inside my jacket. She grabbed it from my hand as if nothing had happened, and went right back to texting. I looked down at Frances and shook my head.

Despite your dog’s years of training, be prepared to walk into a couple of these hazardous individuals during your partnership. Don’t worry about apologizing for the mishap. Zombies will usually ignore you and your dog entirely and continue focusing on their digital world. Take a page from their book and blog, tweet or Facebook about their deplorable behavior later! (How do you like me now, hospital parking lot Smartphone Zombie lady?)

6. Interrogators.

You’re walking with your guide dog when your cell phone rings. You remove your phone from your coat pocket and take the call. That’s when the interrogator appears. “Excuse me, did I just see you answer your phone?”  Yes, yes you did. “But how can you do that if you’re ‘supposed’ to be blind?” If you’re feeling patient that day, feel free to subject yourself to a lengthy discussion with this “Interrogator”about variations in visual acuity and accessibility features on smart phones. Some will appreciate your candor and may even become more educated as a result of your efforts. But prepare yourself! Other “Interrogators” will continue to question the validity of your disability and why you need a guide dog in the first place. Excuse yourself from these conversations. Take the high road, stay classy and remember there are some folks out there who choose to make it their job to interrogate the world.

7. The Flea Circus.

When groups of small children see me working with Frances, they usually begin to bounce up and down. Enter the “Flee Circus.” Kids have two reactions to dogs. They either love them, anxiously trying to pet them, or they are completely petrified, running away in sheer terror. As a blind mom of two toddlers, I know kids can be difficult to manage. They will absolutely test your patience with their overabundance of tenacity and curiosity. However, it’s up to a child’s parents to teach them proper dog etiquette, and I’m not just talking about guide dogs.

No child should be permitted to run up and touch a dog they don’t know. Every dog is different and not all of them can be trusted to tolerate children. As a guide dog handler, I know my dog has been trained to work around kids. That does not negate the fact that I don’t want my dog touched when we are working together, especially when I am trying to manage my own two daughters in public.

8. Puppy Play-daters.

Let me set the scene. You’re about to cross an extremely busy intersection. You and your dog are in sync, intently focused on the sounds and flow of traffic. All of sudden you hear yappy barking headed in your direction. Enter the “Puppy play-dater.” “Oh, hey. Can you see me? This is my dog Precious, she just wants to say hi to your dog.” “Precious” has now snapped to the end of her leash, dragging her overzealous owner behind.

“Can you please hold your dog back?”  I ask.

Badly offended, the owner continues to babble, “No, no really, she’s just playful.”

“Puppy play-daters” fail to realize the immense importance of a guide dog’s health and safety. The blind rely on our canine partners to get us where we need to be on a daily basis. If Frances gets hurt, my entire family suffers. Please control your “precious” dog and pretend my canine partner and I aren’t even here. If we’re in the mood to play, we’ll head to the dog park!

Being a guide dog handler is a delicate balance requiring an immense amount of concentration by both handler and dog. Working with Frances has made me extremely mindful of her safety and my own.While I’m always open to educating others about Franny and my work together, there are times when people’s interactions with us can potentially put my family in danger. Don’t become that hazardous individual for a guide dog team. Respect the working relationship and remember your actions, however well-intentioned, could inadvertently cause us harm.  And please, if you’re walking, stay off the cell phones!

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