Have Cane, Will Travel: Adventures of a Former Guide Dog User

In the past few weeks, after being a guide dog user for many years, I’ve learned some things about walking with a cane on a regular basis. White cane user with guide dog looking on in the backgroundOne of the most frustrating things I’ve learned is that, very often, one cannot walk five steps without some form of unsolicited advice from a stranger.
Things like, “There are some stairs coming up.” (Thanks, but I’m actually well acquainted with said stairs, as I walk this way every day.)

Some advice, along with being unnecessary, is not at all helpful. The ever popular “Watch out!” comes to mind. This one is just so nonspecific that I’m never sure whether I should let my cane find an upcoming pole or tree and go about my business as usual, Charging brown bearor wave my arms and yell as loudly as I can in order to hopefully frighten off the charging bear–you know, like Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail in the movie, Wild. Something like that. So either I ignore the well-intentioned “Watch out!” or it might just give me a heart attack.

Then there are the compliments. “You’re doing really well!” “You’ve got it, you’ve got it!” I’m never really sure how to take these comments. I’m tempted to say something like, “Thank you, I’ve been working on it for 32 years now, and I think I’m finally getting the hang of this walking thing.” But I don’t because I know most people are just trying to be helpful.

There are so many things to keep in mind when I’m out walking. I realize that much of what it means to be blind and to walk with a cane is so foreign to the experience of people who can see. Actually making contact with things like poles, trees, or trash cans BEFORE walking around them … that’s not something a sighted person will intuitively understand, so it’s probably a little disconcerting to see. Actually exploring an area, small detail by small detail, in order to get a good picture in your mind of how it all fits together is not a concept easily identified with by most people out on the street.

I would love to be able to stop and explain to well-intentioned strangers what I’m doing at any given time, but sometimes I just want to get where I’m going like everyone else. It’s hard when I’m having a bad day, or when the person I’m trying so hard not to snap at has grabbed me or my cane. It’s challenging when said person is actually the fifth one to grab me that day in an effort to be helpful. And still, even with all that, I am loving this new journey. Some days, if nothing else, these well-intentioned strangers do give me a good laugh. Life is good indeed!

Intoxicated by Braille

I get my braille magazines from a deafblind friend who passes them on to me when she’s done reading them. Syndicated Columnists Weekly coverThen I read them while driving to work, eyes on the road, left hand on the wheel, right hand deep in Syndicated Columnists Weekly.
I’m sighted (you’re thinking: I hope so, if you drive a car!) and I think I may be the only person on the face of the planet who reads braille while driving 70 mph down the highway. Please don’t misunderstand me–I am not promoting distracted driving. I am simply stating a fact: I like to read braille while driving, which is no more dangerous than driving while listening to books on tape, or eating a pastrami sandwich on rye, or keeping time with my thumb on my knee to an old-fashioned song in my head, eyes on the road, EYES ON THE ROAD.

I’ve been intoxicated by braille ever since first learning to read it (visually) about 30 years ago when I worked as a transcriber at National Braille Press. Hands on brailleAround that same time, I took a sign language class across the street at Northeastern University, where I fell in love with the teacher, who was deaf, and whom I later married. I also thereby became rather fluent in sign language, and eventually left NBP to pursue a career as an interpreter. But I never lost touch with braille. And eventually I learned to read it tactilely. This is how I did it:

I was sitting in the proverbial traffic jam from hell one day, going absolutely nowhere on my way to work, when I reached over to the passenger seat where there happened to be a braille letter from a deafblind friend I’d met the previous summer at an AADB (American Association of the DeafBlind) convention. With nothing better to do, I tried reading it with my finger. I had no problem with “Dear Paul,” but it took me the rest of my commute (about an hour) to make out the first two sentences. Concentrating on that braille letter in my lap, shifting it to my stomach, my chest, trying to read it with my finger, my eyes never leaving the road, made the time go by. And it was something to DO. And so, on the drive home, I continued reading. And the next day and the next. And lo, my habit of reading braille in the car was born!

If you do anything for two hours a day (an hour in, and an hour out) five days a week, for several years, you will get better at it. Which is exactly what happened. I can now read braille quite proficiently with my right index finger. And I enjoy doing it! I like the physicality of reading tactilely. Am I using neurons and synapses that I wouldn’t otherwise be using? I don’t know, and I don’t really care about the science of it; what interests me more is, for lack of a better word, the poetry of braille. For example, a long time ago at NBP, my friend Gil Busch told me the word “ice” in braille always reminded him of a little hill: the upward climbing i, the crest of the c, the downward sloping e. I never forgot that, and I always think of it when I come across that word in my reading. And my friend John Lee Clark has said, Andy is a square; Sandy is a square with a ponytail. Such are the little reading pleasures that are peculiar to braille. All those words within words. And those lower-cell contractions (BY, TO, INTO) that, before UEB, would attach to the subsequent character, kind of like a barnacle, or a burr, or a baby sloth. And the tactile alliteration of a string of dot 5 contractions all in a row: “Lord knows, some young mothers work right here throughout the day.” Or encountering the occasional sentence or phrase made up entirely of whole-word contractions: “You can do as you like but it’s just that people like us will not go.” Call me weird, but I get a kick out of these sorts of things when I encounter them in my reading.

I enjoy reading braille in bed at night when my wife would rather go to sleep. No problem, honey, I’ll read with the lights out. I enjoy reading braille in a dark movie theater during those interminable previews, and even during the movie itself if it turns out the movie stinks. I read braille in line at the bank, in line at the grocery store, while waiting for the train, while riding on the train, and even while walking from the train (walking and reading is easy as walking and talking!). But most of all I enjoy (see above) reading braille while driving–driving while intoxicated by braille! I think I hear some of you object: But it must be illegal! Let me reassure you, our esteemed lawmakers and constabularies can’t even conceive of it. No one can imagine it–no one except you, that is. So it’s our little secret. Okay?

Who Will I Be Without A Guide Dog?

A few months ago, my guide dog, Colbert, began to exhibit fear behaviors Guide dog walking on streetwhen we were about to get on a city bus. He had, over time, become increasingly less enthusiastic about boarding and sitting on the bus. After a while, I would have to be the one to get us to the door. His former confident stride up to and onto the bus disappeared. Without a cane, this left me, with very little tactile feedback trying to get us to the door, which sometimes went smoothly and sometimes didn’t.

The bus was clearly not his friend, but a few months ago, it finally became his enemy. At first he would refuse to get on, then, when the bus would pull up, he would turn and try to run away from it. I knew this was more than I could handle myself. I called the guide dog school that trained us and they said they would have someone come to help. I told them I could work with the no-bus situation for the next few weeks if it took that long to get someone out to see us. I could take the train most everywhere, and for those places I couldn’t, I could take a taxi. But this was expensive, so I decided one morning to leave Colbert at home and use my cane.

I did this for the next few weeks, and to my surprise, I didn’t hate it. In fact, I kind of enjoyed it. I was starting to learn, actually learn for myself, how to navigate the subway stations, the streets, the bus stops, and the parking lots. One day, like a switch being flipped, the thought popped into my head: Maybe, just maybe, I like this … better?

  • What would it be like to go somewhere without waiting for my little furry travel companion to relieve first?
  • What would it be like to go to a crowded pub and not worry that it was too loud or that someone would step on him?
  • What would it be like to let time get away from me at a friend’s house, then decide to stay the night, without worrying that I didn’t bring any dog food?

But perhaps most of all, what would it be like to be the only one working to get myself from point A to point B, minus all the wonderful responsibilities of a partnership with a guide dog?

Upon the heels of all these fleeting thoughts came instant and intense guilt. I was horrified! It was like a door I had opened for a quick peek, but then, though intrigued, wanted to slam shut. I had been partnered with a guide dog since I was in my early twenties. For the past twelve years, I would tell anyone who would listen that getting a guide dog had been one of the best decisions I’d ever made. The freedom I felt when I first began to work with my first guide, Debbie, and then when we moved from small-town Wisconsin to Boston, was like nothing I’d ever experienced. And then when I met Colbert—spunky, silly, confident, strong, and sometimes naughty—Colbert, I was sure I’d found another perfect partner.

Suddenly I didn’t know what to think anymore, or even who I was. When our field manager from the guide dog school came to visit, I broke down and cried for two straight hours as we talked, reviewing old notes from his previous visits in the past year.

Wynter and Colbert on couch together

Wynter snuggling with Colbert

No, things had not been perfect for Colbert and me, and my love for him had caused me to be less than honest with myself and everyone else about how we were doing. But give up on a guide dog altogether? I felt like such a traitor to the cause! I believe so strongly in the work of these wonderful organizations that train guide dogs, and feel a special sense of loyalty and gratitude to the one that brought me Debbie and then Colbert. Who would I be without a guide dog?

I made the incredibly difficult decision to find out the answer to that question. Colbert will be going back into the capable hands of our guide dog school, who will reassess him and find him a loving home away from busy Boston, a home where he can run and play and, I hope, swim, his favorite thing! He won’t have to get on a city bus or the subway. This has, hands down, been the most difficult and emotional decision I have ever had to make. Twenty times a day I question myself. Every time we take a little walk and his work is good, I think, maybe I’m wrong. But I know I’m doing the right thing.

Words can’t even express my gratitude to everyone who has been a part of our incredible journey together: Colbert’s amazing puppy raisers, his trainers at the school, my trainers at the school, our field manager, and our friends. I love my furry little guy so much and I will miss him. I know, without a doubt, that it’s only because of the help of Colbert and Debbie that I feel I can take this next step and see what happens. Whether it turns out to be just a short break from having a guide dog or a permanent lifestyle change, I will always believe in the power of partnership. I will always be grateful to the amazing men, women, and dogs who made it all possible.

Braille Is Sexy

The first braille I ever laid eyes on was a braille Playboy belonging to my blind friend, Edgardo, who lived on the third floor of my apartment building. It had the word Playboy emblazoned in black ink across the front cover
Playboy magazine in braille with the iconic rabbit-in-a-bowtie logo and National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped printed in the bottom left-hand corner. But when I opened the magazine up, it was completely blank—a vast expanse of white goose bumps, a blizzard of snowy dots.

I remember asking Edgardo, half jokingly, “Where are all the pictures?” and turning the magazine over and over in my hands, wondering if it was upside down or right side up. So many dots, each one casting a tiny shadow, like the view from an airplane flying over a country of igloos. “It doesn’t have any pictures,” said Edgardo, taking the magazine from my hands and reading it silently to himself. “But it has descriptions. And it has captions. And I have my imagination.”

Then he began to read aloud: “Becky Dupree, Miss March, leans seductively against a door jamb of the barn, wearing a cowboy hat and a button-down cerulean shirt open to her navel…” “Get out of here! It doesn’t say that,” I said. “Take a look at this,” he said, handing me back the magazine,Hands on braille his index finger-pointing to a row of dots halfway down the page, as indecipherable to me as a “You Are Here” sign in Mandarin. I was intrigued. So this was braille. But how on earth did it work? How were the letters represented? The punctuation? The paragraphs? Where was the alphabet in all this whiteout of dots?

It was right then and there that I resolved to learn it; to teach myself braille; to see for myself if Becky Dupree was indeed wearing a cerulean shirt unbuttoned to her navel. I was going to demystify this inscrutable code that most people, myself included, assumed was something that only the blind could apprehend. What did I have to lose?

Braille was the most interesting, the most provocative thing to cross my path since I’d broken up with my college girlfriend and run away to Boston where I was working a dead-end job in a delicatessen. With nothing to claim my interest or attentions, why not give myself over to braille?

“May I keep this?” I asked Edgardo, holding the braille Playboy to my chest in a protective, possessive attitude, as though it were Becky Dupree herself. Luckily, Edgardo was willing to part with the magazine, seeing as it was the March issue and we were now in the middle of July. He was months behind in his reading, the braille Playboys, Reader’s Digests, National Geographics and Washington Post Book Worlds in piles all around his apartment, leaning towers of braille growing precariously toward the ceiling like stalagmites in a dark cave.

The day after commandeering Edgardo’s Playboy, I signed up for a correspondence course in braille transcription through the Hadley School for the Blind in Winnetka, Illinois, and I spent the next twelve months learning the braille code. I kept Edgardo’s Playboy under my bed for that whole year, taking it out and dusting it off now and then to hunt for Becky Dupree, who, when I was finally fluent enough to find her, wasn’t even in there in the end. Once I’d read the whole issue, front to back, I finally realized, a little too late, that Edgardo had invented her. He’d made her up just to get my goat, which in the end is what goaded me on to learn braille.

A Revolutionary Tea Party: A Moment of Shared Accessibility

Boston fashioned its revolutionary identity hurling tea into the Boston Harbor—an iconic event that inspired a second Tea Party movement hundreds of years later. But this post is about a third Boston tea party event, not as well-known, but revolutionary in its own right.

Several months ago, four of us—Mike Mellor, author of Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, Ann Cunningham, a renowned sculptor and tactile artist, JoAnn Becker, an NBP Trustee and technology trainer at Perkins, and myself, a publisher at NBP—attended the unveiling of the Edgar Allan Poe statue in Boston. Edgar Allan Poe statue in BostonOne of the best-kept secrets of Boston’s literary history is the fact that Edgar Allan Poe was born here.

Moments after they removed the covering from his life-size statue, the four of us pushed hard against an enormous crowd to get close enough to touch Poe’s swirling cape, to trace the enormous wingspan of his raven, even to insert our hands into the raven’s screeching beak. It was a moment of shared accessibility and we felt giddy.

In fact, it was the second time that day that we shared a moment of culture and art. Earlier, passing by the Museum of Fine Arts, we spontaneously decided to venture in to see what might be accessible to us all. As we walked through the heavy doors, Ann suddenly remembered that she had worked with Steve Landau at Touch Graphics, and Hannah Goodwin, Manager of Accessibility at the Museum, to create a tactile book that explores American Style through the centuries by showcasing contrasting teapot designs!

Each era was illustrated with an example of a teapot MFA book in print and braille on period teapotscreated in that period’s style, and embossed in low relief. Accompanying text, in large print and braille, described each design in detail. The coup d’ grace was an electronic pen that, when any element of the design was touched, would provide even more information. Unfortunately the battery in the pen had run out and we were not able to access this feature. But by now our batteries were already charged with this unexpected treat, as Ann and JoAnn sat down on an ancient museum bench to explore Style: Period Details Explored in Teapots as tactile designer and art devotee respectively.

“I feel I have as clear a vision of what those teapots look like, and each unique period’s design, as anyone sighted,” said JoAnn, as we left the museum. “I had no idea until today that I prefer the Federalist period of teapots over the Empire era and precisely why!”

It seemed an ordinary and an extraordinary afternoon among friends—as simple and yet as exquisite as a teapot.