Labrador guide dog in harness.

Traveling with a guide dog means I get to hear some pretty interesting comments from the public. It also means I run into some pretty awkward and interesting situations as well. Here are seven commonly occurring comments, or situations I tend to encounter while I’m out and about that are truly annoying.

1.”I know she has her harness on and I can’t pet her, but…” *starts petting anyway*

How disrespectful can you get? This isn’t a situation where the individual is being ignorant and needs educating, this is a situation where the individual knows better and knows the rules, but chooses to disrespect them. To me, this person is saying “I know petting a guide dog while they have their harness on is a safety issue, but I don’t actually care.”

2. Parents who pull their kids away from us.

It’s common knowledge that parents as a whole don’t tend to do the greatest job at teaching their children about guide/service dogs, so naturally it’s us as the handlers who have to do that job for them. I personally love it when parents want me to explain about guide dogs to their kids. However, there’s a common reaction parents have when their kid starts petting my dog that I find somewhat troubling. When their kids start petting my dog and when I notice them, or when I try to educate them, the parents grab them and whisk them away with no explanation. It’s most likely out of fear (cause ya know, difference is just so damn scary — not) or embarrassment.

Really, don’t be embarrassed. Kids will be kids; we understand that and many handlers have children of their own too. Here’s why the above is such a pet peeve of mine, though… pulling your kid away with no explanation teaches fear and doesn’t open dialogue. My heart sinks every time this happens because not only is talking to kids one of the best parts of being a guide dog user, but a perfectly good opportunity to do some practical education to build awareness and break down the fear of difference. If you’re worried we’ll be angry — while I can’t speak for all guide dog users, most including myself wouldn’t be. With that said, remember, we don’t have to be open to doing the job you should be doing with regards to teaching your kids about guide dogs. It’s a choice that I and other guide dog users make. Take advantage of it and don’t treat us like we’re not on the same level as you are.

3. “Its OK if she sniffs me” or similar statements.

People seem to be quite bothered by the fact that as a guide dog, Izzy has certain rules that she needs to follow while out and about. Some of these rules also need to be enforced when her harness is off. A big one, while she’s on harness at least, is sniffing. Guide dogs can’t be sniffing while they are working because it distracts from their work. Not to mention that they aren’t supposed to greet a person while their harness is on, even if it’s just a little sniff. I am pretty strict with rules, and when I tell Izzy to “leave it” if she sniffs you, I mean it. If I have to give her a quick snap in the leash, I will do that too. You, as an individual who hasn’t been through the training, have no place to stick your nose in and say otherwise.

No, she’s not allowed to sniff you. I say so, her guide dog school says so and telling me otherwise promotes an all-too familiar discourse that individuals with disabilities are incompetent to make the appropriate judgements for themselves, a pet, a guide dog, or a child. Of course, when she’s off harness, she can sniff and say hello, but there are other rules that still need to be enforced. The biggest one is no eating food off the floor. Whether Izzy is on harness or off harness she is not allowed to eat food on the floor. Whether on or off harness people again tend to get pretty bothered by the fact that she receives a correction if she tries to, or does eat food off the ground. While you may think it’s fine to give your pet dog people food or an excessive amount of treats, it isn’t healthy for her. So when you say “but she’s just…” you’re disrespecting my authority and my choice to maintain a healthy guide dog.

4. Pet dogs not on leashes.

Having your pet dog off leash is extremely dangerous when not in a fenced area. It’s dangerous to your pet’s well-being and its dangerous to the well-being of service dogs too. Pet dogs that aren’t on leashes pose a serious risk of attacking or interfering with a service dog’s work.

5. Teasing my guide dog isn’t OK.

So now I’ve told you not to pet my guide dog while she’s working and explained to you why you can’t pet my guide dog while she’s working, but you’re getting in her face, making eye contact with her and doing that annoying squealing thing that people (including myself) tend to do when we see a cute animal. Relax, take a deep breath and stop. You’re not petting my dog, but you are intentionally teasing her and that’s not OK. You can comment on how cute she is, even go “aww,” but if possible, say it without getting in my dog’s face.

6. Whether my dog does something good or bad, there’s no need to stare.

Whether my dog is doing something pretty amazing like “finding” something for me, or something bad like pooping in the mall, it’s OK to be curious and look, but it isn’t OK to stand there and stare. It can be very anxietyprovoking when we’re trying to work with our dogs — to be in the process of praising them or correcting them and feel people’s eyes constantly on us.

7. Taking pictures of my guide dog without permission.

My friends with vision are constantly telling me about how people are taking pictures of my dog. Obviously being blind I have no idea this is happening. It has happened in the grocery store, the bank and restaurants among other places. I don’t really have a problem with people taking pictures of my dog, if they ask me first. Not asking permission is a total invasion of my privacy and something I don’t want happening while I’m trying to do my grocery shopping, or while I’m doing other things people usually do.

So there you have it, my top guide dog user pet peeves. I’m so fortunate to have a guide dog who is incredible at her job and loves to work as well. I hope learning more from the perspective of the person at the other end of the leash puts things into perspective. Too often the dog is seen and not the person who also makes up the team. It’s important to have respect for the dog, the handler and the guide dog team as a whole.

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Thinkstock image by Cylonphoto.

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Self-driving cars, science fiction not so long ago, are here. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in May that New York will join 13 states and the District of Columbia enacting regulations regarding autonomous vehicles. A driverless car may provide me with autonomy that has eluded me in my life as well. Autonomy to live in any location, to choose a profession, to navigate the world and “fit in.”

I was born with a condition called optic atrophy, in plain speak an underdeveloped optic nerve. On a good day, my vision is 80/20 with contact lenses. Without, everything beyond 10 feet or so is a furry mess. My eyes cannot focus normally and my eyes seem to shake in their sockets, one eye staring at something irrelevant while the other focuses. I am self-conscious about this and wonder whether I need to explain when I encounter someone for the first time.

Growing up, I developed coping mechanisms to deal with the day to day struggles of a person with low vision. I learned to memorize oral instructions quickly, plotted with my teachers to get me closer to the board and used large type materials when they were available. I knew the number of stops on the subway before I took a train journey as I struggled with signs at a distance. Baseball and tennis were out, soccer and basketball were in.

I was fortunate to be under the care of an ophthalmologist who was militant that I should not be treated any differently than other children. “This is the world you have to inhabit,” he told me often. “And this is the world you have to learn to navigate.” I would have to advocate for myself and not be afraid to do and try anything.

In spite of my impairment, I mostly succeeded in school, social, and work life. There were things I could never do though: fly a plane, apply for certain types of jobs, and get a driver’s license. I mostly lived in large metropolitan areas where public transportation was available, and I was fortunate enough to work in a field where employment was plentiful and easily reached without a car.

In our world, though, driving and owning a car is an integral part of growing up. Picking up a date on your bike does not have the same cache as pulling up in a Mustang. Traveling home after an evening out often meant long waits at subway or bus stops without any idea of when my chariot would arrive. When I met the woman who would later become my wife, she lived in Jackson Heights and I lived in Coney Island, opposite ends of New York City’s F line. Returning home late at night was a two-hour haul versus a 30 minute drive.

Having to explain to employers and acquaintances that you can’t just drive someplace to meet them involves embarrassing conversations. Despite the availability of mass transit in larger cities, it is frustrating to have to limit choices because of that. I share the complaint of many physically disabled people; the non-disabled just don’t get it and it is tiring to always have to explain.

In my mid-30’s, as a new father with a greater need to move greater quantities of diapers, stuffed animals and snacks, I discovered through an optometrist friend a program offered by New York State to provide driver’s licenses to low vision drivers. If this does not frighten you, it should. The idea of the Low Vision Driver Program was that using an adaptive device called a bioptic telescope, people with limited distance vision could qualify for a license. The device, a pair of glasses with a four power telescope mounted at the top of the right lens, would allow the wearer to focus on distant signs and objects and see them with the same acuity as someone who was not visually impaired. This seemed like a wish fulfilled and I eagerly got the device, completed a six-week training, and took my road test which I passed on the first go-through.

Despite the fact that I was a mature individual and now armed with a device that should even the playing field, I was concerned. Certainly I could read the signs and operate the vehicle, but was that enough? This apprehension was soon tested. I was driving on a country road that paralleled the twisting Delaware River on a lovely summer day. The sun was brilliant and the air was was warm and fragrant. I was tooling along alone on a road I was familiar with, having ridden it on my bicycle countless times and been a passenger more times than that, coasting down a hill where I would need to make a right hand turn at the bottom. I knew all this, yet started braking for the turn too late. The car went into a spin with squealing tires and trees flashing by my window. When I finally came to a stop, turned around and shaken, I said a prayer of thanks that I had come out unscathed. I took a deep breath and drove home, but I’ve never gotten behind the wheel again.

Perhaps this was an overreaction and I had just made a rookie mistake. I didn’t think so then and I don’t think so now. A responsible adult needs to weigh the consequences of their actions and where their convenience could affect the public good. I certainly wouldn’t drive intoxicated nor let anyone else. I began thinking of all of the things I could have missed and would continue to miss if I continued driving. It simply was not worth the risk.

It has been almost 25 years since that incident. In many ways, the world is a much easier place to navigate. There are a multitude of phone apps to erase the indignities I once felt. I no longer have to wait at bus stops wondering if the bus would ever come — Moovit lets me know exactly and I can schedule accordingly, Lyft is a much cheaper substitute for owning a car and probably more convenient. Google Maps ensures that I am (mostly) never lost and I don’t have to struggle to read street signs that always seem too small.

And then there are self-driving vehicles. The promise is just so tantalizing. Road fatalities will be drastically reduced as vehicles perform more predictably. A computer never experiences “road rage,” so traveling by car will be less stressful. Vehicles will use less fuel since they will be calibrated to accelerate and decelerate optimally. More parking spaces will be available since self-parking cars will use less space.

Ten years ago I might have thought this was the answer I had always been waiting for. Today, I am not so sure. I’ve learned to successfully navigate the world in so many clever ways that sometimes I pity those who are dependent on their cars. When I was a boy, frustrated by my inability to play baseball with my friends and making excuses to duck the game, my mother would say that she believed doctors would be able to fix my eyes in my lifetime. While that hasn’t happened, clever minds have conspired to sidestep the problem and provide a universal workaround to allow every ability to “fit in.”

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Thinkstock photo by Fodera72.


A few months ago, one of my officemates asked me to help her word an email. She pointed to her screen and asked if she was getting her point across. I responded, “Oh please, you know there’s no way I can see that!” She read the questionable wording out loud, and I provided my feedback.

She then chimed in, “Isn’t it a compliment I forget about your vision loss?” I paused, choosing my words carefully, and shared that although it is flattering that she does not see me as defined by my disability, my vision loss is a core piece of my identity that impacts how I live my life. My vision loss is central to my daily experience; it seems unfathomable that it is easily and frequently forgotten.

Many friends and family members have shared how unnoticeable my vision loss is to them. This is said wholeheartedly as a compliment. Although I recognize the good intentions, I no longer view this as a compliment. Candidly, I find it offensive.

I haven’t always felt this way. A few years ago, I would have enthusiastically responded “It is a huge compliment that you don’t see me as disabled!” I never aspired for my vision loss to become a part of my identity. Passing as sighted was a badge of honor.

Still, I continue to be sensitive to the ways in which my vision loss is apparent. I feel self-conscious when I spill, make jokes when I run into things, and try desperately to make it appear as if I’m making eye contact, even if I can’t see your face. Embedded in these lingering insecurities, there is a piece of me that is flattered when you say this is unnoticed. In that moment, I feel like perhaps I’m not that different; perhaps I can pass as sighted.

At the same time, I am and will likely always be disabled. I strive to be transparent about my vision loss, which requires me to put my shame aside, ask for help when I need it, and avoid minimizing the consequences of low vision. Confidence and comfort in my body’s abilities requires me to move past the brief glory of passing as sighted. It isn’t glorious to pretend to be someone I’m not, and it isn’t a compliment that you see me as someone I’m not. I am enough, even if I spill and run into things and cannot make eye contact. When you tell me that it’s a compliment that you don’t notice or remember these aspects of me, I receive the message that it is not flattering to appear disabled.

I challenge the notion that passing as able-bodied is flattering. I want it to be flattering to recognize the diverse spectrum of human ability.  Maybe one day, I’ll be afforded the compliment, “I could never forget your disability because it is a core part of your identity. It would be like forgetting your name, race, or gender. Your difference in ability makes you who you are, and I will forever notice you.”

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The teacher is passing out the classwork for the day, and there is a noticeable lack of large print or colored paper at the bottom of the pile. As it comes time to give classwork to my section, the teacher looks at me and goes “Oh shoot, I forgot you needed large print. Figure something out.” My best friend next to marks another tally on a list we call “times Veronica didn’t get her work”– in one class, we have over two dozen tallies.

I often leave the classroom to go enlarge my assignment, since I know that if I don’t, the teacher will give me a zero and remind me of how they wished I wasn’t in their class. Even though I have an IEP, and have had one since kindergarten for my low vision, that doesn’t seem to stop teachers from continuing to discriminate against me. I report this to my case manager or other staff member in the special education department, and they pretty much say the same thing each time:

“You’re so high functioning, it’s easy to forget about you!”

My parents and I are in an IEP meeting because I currently have a C, or a D, or a F in one of my classes. The teacher has repeatedly forgotten or refused to enlarge my work, saying it is a waste of resources. I have As in almost all of my other classes, Bs in a few of them. My parents are trying to figure out how an A student is getting such low grades, and why nothing is being done about it. But technically, Cs and Ds are passing, and the special education department says that everything is fine, after all:

“You’re so high functioning, we have other students to take care of!”

I need some additional resources in the classroom. I try to bring this up with special education staff both at my school and at the district level. Most of my requests are ignored, because I shouldn’t need the help. When people do appear from the district level, they are asking me questions about other students, or strictly talking about other students, saying that I am an easy case, they don’t have to worry about me, there are worse-off kids that deserve their time, and I am wasting their time. I realize that the only way I will succeed is if I figure it out myself, since they always tell me:

“You’re so high functioning, you don’t need our help!”

I’m a college student who is studying assistive technology and am waiting for a friend after a band performance. I’m holding my instrument, wearing sunglasses that block out the glare of the lights, and balancing my blindness cane in the other hand. While I’m waiting, a person I have never met walks up to me and starts asking a series of rude questions about my vision and how they had never met someone like me before. They do not stop talking to me, and get frustrated with me that I don’t respond. Later on, I am told to apologize and answer their questions, and their response is almost exactly what I expected:

“You’re so high functioning, that’s inspirational!”

My typical response to people calling me high functioning used to be saying “thank you, and so are you.” However, recently my attitude changed about this, and I realized I could replace the negative phrase with a more positive one. Despite the best efforts of school personnel, I have been able to see past the negative circumstances given to me and still succeed in school. I have discovered my passion for assistive technology and helping others to succeed. My condition is a major factor in my life, yes, but it isn’t the only thing in my life. I am not just high functioning:

“I am high achieving.”

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Thinkstock photo by Otto Kalman.


A visit to the ophthalmologist confirmed that I’d lost more vision, which wasn’t much of a surprise. I have retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition. I still had good acuity at this time, but my vision had narrowed, like seeing through a paper towel roll. Walking into a stop sign was certainly one of those dramatic times that brought to my attention the disparity between what I saw and reality.  If I’d been waiting for a sign that I needed a cane, well, I’d just walked into one.

It was time to stop, literally, and face the truth: I wasn’t safe without some kind of additional support. I knew it was time… perhaps past time. My world and therefore my children’s world would get smaller if I didn’t seek additional training. I wanted my children to know the world was full of possibilities and what a meaningful life could look like. I couldn’t do that if I was afraid of getting hurt when I left the house.

My desire to be out in the world nudged me to make that call to the Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The next day a friendly Orientation and Mobility Instructor greeted us and quickly showed me some simple techniques to help around our home and office. He then took me to an open room, unfolded a
cane and handed it to me. I’d been afraid of this moment. But as I grasped the black plastic handle and felt the weight of the long white pole in my hand, I decided it was time to embrace this opportunity.

The people I met that day at the Center were positive, motivated and capable.  They
have given me a glimpse of my future that now didn’t scare me. The O and M Instructor covered a few basics that day and we scheduled our first official training for later in the week. Using the cane was like sending a messenger ahead to report back on obstacles, he said. It wasn’t long before the rhythm felt routine. As I made wide arcs down the street, I held my head high and began to feel confident in enjoying walking again.

“You know, he said, just having the cane out will help others be more aware of you.” I knew he was right. Yet, many times as I left training, I tucked my cane safely back into my purse and carefully walked back to the bus stop. If I was feeling brave, I would carry it folded in my hand, ready to unfold it as needed. Of course, I couldn’t know I needed it until it was too late. I knew Bob had a point. I reflected on occasions when having a cane would have helped people understand my behavior.
Perhaps flirting with the wrong man at the video store would have been less embarrassing. Maybe there would be some benefits to having people know I was visually impaired.

I continued to master my skills in a beautiful historic neighborhood in Salt Lake City with uneven sidewalks. We met near the University of Utah, where I had
to locate a specific pizza place several streets away. We went to the Crossroads Plaza Mall downtown, where I’d been shopping with the kids for years. The crown jewel of our training was to train in my own neighborhood, and walk the places where I would regularly visit. My nerves about running into someone I knew were a good indicator that I hadn’t quite adjusted to my identity as a visually impaired person.

Something about joining these two identities – Becky: neighbor, mother of two and Becky: visually impaired woman – was still unnerving. Doing cane training at my local grocery store brought these two worlds together quickly. As Bob and I worked our way through the grocery store, we approached my neighbor Sue. It was bound to happen.

“Uh… hi,” I began awkwardly, pointing at Bob. “This is my teacher… teaching me to use this cane.”  I pointed unnecessarily at the cane.

“Oh, that’s nice,”  she said. “Good to see you.”  And she went on her way, seemingly unfazed by the same encounter that was causing me to blush.

A few weeks later I requested some additional training at the Crossroads Mall. I’d been back to the mall since my initial training, and still had a few questions about navigating its unique layout. This time the scheduling put me with a different O and M instructor, Susan. After our session, I gathered the courage to confess that I sometimes felt uncomfortable using the cane. I didn’t like drawing attention to
myself. I didn’t like people looking at me. I still wasn’t sure where I fit into
this spectrum, with some vision left and people looking at me.

Susan simply asked some straightforward questions. “Is the cane helping keep you
safe?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Yes. Without a doubt,” I said.

“Do you feel more confident about going out? Do you feel more independent
with the cane?” She continued.

“Yes, absolutely,” was my response.

“You just told me you walked into a woman sitting alone in the middle of a soccer field. Would that have happened if you’d had a cane?”

I felt my face flush remember that experience. “No.”

Susan looked at me with her hands on her hips. “Well, I think  you need to be true to yourself. Use this tool that will help you live an independent life.”

I knew she was right. That day I let go of that worry. It’s a heavy weight, wondering what people are thinking about you, but I hadn’t realized how heavy until I let it go.

I’d been so concerned about how I felt using the cane that I hadn’t acknowledged how much it served me, how much I needed it. This wonderful tool allowed me to be safe and independent – what a gift! Being honest that I needed the cane and letting go of this worry was accompanied by a beautiful feeling of self-acceptance. I am visually impaired.

As I felt this acceptance and was true to myself, I could embrace the cane fully. I was ready to answer someone’s questions with confidence and feel at peace with myself.

Almost 25 years later, my cane is still a reminder to be true to myself.

“The greatest act of courage is to be and own all that you are – without apology, without excuses and without masks to cover the truth of who you really are.” –Debbie Ford

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The first Wednesday of every month, this momma gets a night out on the town. My guide dog Frances and I walk 15 blocks to a local catering hall where we attend a Soroptimist meeting. Sometimes having a guide dog is a lot like having a toddler, meaning you better make sure you relieve your dog before you get ready to sit through a three-hour dinner. It’s not unusual to catch Franny and I frequenting her favorite grassy spot before we enter the building. That’s exactly what we were doing when we were approached by a woman coming out of the local bank.

“What a beautiful dog!”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Why does she have the leather thing on?”

“She’s a guide dog.”

“A guide dog? Like for a blind person? Are you blind?”

“Yes, I am blind. This is Frances, my guide dog.”

“Oh wow! I’ve never met a blind person before or an actual guide dog.”

I could tell her enthusiasm would most likely make me late for my meeting.

“Where are you both heading tonight? Do you need any help?”

“No thanks, just going across the street. Franny can get me there.”

“Oh, you have an event tonight?

“A meeting, actually.”

“So that explains the fancy attire. I love that shirt.”

Frances continued making her tiny circles, preparing to squat, when the woman walked closer. “But did you know your back fat is showing? I just wanted to tell you in case you were unaware.”

I felt like I was having an outer body experience. My mind was spinning and I swear on my life even Frances was glaring at this lady in disbelief, as if to say, “Oh no you didn’t.”

Unaware? Was this woman fricken’ for real?

I was stunned by her ignorance — absolutely floored.

The Reality:

Yes, I am blind. Yes, I have back fat.

I also have front fat.

Side fat.

Stretch marks.

And cellulite.

I have dimples is places there “should be no” dimpling.

I have a double chin — quite possibly a triple. But who’s counting?

I have crow’s feet.

Laugh lines.

Wrinkles.

And middle age acne.

I’ve also been known to have the occasional chin hair. (Just because I can’t see them, doesn’t mean I can’t feel those little suckers.)

I have saddle bags.

Saggy boobs.

And a good extra 20 pounds around my mid section.

Trust me; I am aware.

But here’s what this person doesn’t know about the body she was so quick to criticize.

This body has survived cancer.

It has been poked.

Prodded.

Sliced.

And manhandled.

This body has been through biopsies.

Mammograms.

Surgeries.

Chemo.

And has had enough radiation to quite possibly glow in the dark.

This body has carried two children… to term. Survived 10 months of pregnancy. And was cut open during two C-sections.

This body did what doctors thought was impossible; it has survived.

These eyes she thinks can’t see “back fat” once had 20/20 vision.

Cancer and radiation robbed me.

My eyesight was stolen from me.

And that same, monstrous disease also stole my hair, leaving me to live with post-chemotherapy alopecia.

I can only assume she was unaware that I was also wearing a wig that evening.

Every single day of my life, this body lives in pain.

Scars burn.

Joints ache.

My vision continues to decline.

I am in chronic, constant discomfort.

But this body needs to keep going because I have two daughters to raise.

I have a husband who needs me.

I have a community that I’m a part of.

So I force my legs into motion.

I muster the the strength to grip my guide dog’s harness.

And there are many times I’ve needed to say a silent prayer just so I can make it through the day.

As for my “back fat,” neither my children or my husband seem to notice when they wrap their arms around me.

I am aware that I am squishy in many places. However, I like to think my extra “squish” makes for softer snuggles.

After everything I’ve been through, my family doesn’t care what I look like, they just thank God that I am alive.

My Response to “Back Fat”:

I looked at this woman, right in the face.

“Can I ask you something? Would you have told a sighted woman who you just met on the street she had back fat?”

“Well, no. I just assumed you didn’t know because you’re blind. I wasn’t trying to insult you.”

“Well ma’am, you did exactly that. Yes, I am blind. Yes, I have back fat. Trust me, I am aware. But I would much rather live with my back fat than be ignorant; because the way you just treated me was the height of ignorance. Just in case you were unaware.”

With that, I grabbed Frances’ harness and we walked across the street to our destination. I held my head high and marched my “back fat” right into that meeting. I felt proud of me. I felt proud of my imperfect body, but mostly I had felt proud of my response to the woman I had encountered that evening. Beauty fades, ignorance is forever, and you don’t need perfect vision to see that.

Holly and her guide dog in a park, with Holly kneeling next to her guide dog, both of them looking at each other

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