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!

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.

Observations WIthout Sight: Teach Your Children Well

While at a friend’s house a few weeks ago, a little boy loudly asked his mother, “Is that the one with bwinded eyes?” His mother quietly told him yes, and then quickly tried to distract him with other things. Not to be deterred, he asked me, “How did your eyes get bwinded?” I must admit that I don’t have much experience around little children and feel a bit awkward around them no matter what the situation. But I told him openly that my eyes didn’t work because I’d been born too early, before they were ready to work. (OK, not completely accurate, but close enough.)

His mother continued to shush him and I felt a little angry at this. I wanted to say (but didn’t) “You’re teaching your child, right here and now, that blindness is something we shouldn’t talk about, something shameful perhaps.” I doubt very much that this was her intention, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a young child and be embarrassed about what they’re saying or doing, worried that it will offend someone else. But if I could get one message across to parents of young children, it would be:

You know better than anyone how curious your child is, how eager they are to learn. Let them learn; let them ask questions, interact, engage. Please, don’t worry about me. There’s nothing your child could say that I haven’t heard before, and I’m not likely to be offended by a little one who is learning.

girl petting guide dogAbout a week after that, I was walking down the street when a little 6-year old girl and her father came up to me. She asked if she could pet my guide dog, Colbert. I stopped, had Colbert sit, and let her pet him. She asked me why my eyes weren’t open, and I told her that since they’d never worked, sometimes I just forget to open them. She asked about how Colbert and I did things, and her father told her that we do the same things everyone else does, just sometimes a little differently. She asked why I couldn’t see, and I told her I’d been born 3 months early. It turned out that so had she, and that we both weighed 1 pound 11 ounces.

This was a wonderful experience mainly due to her father’s open attitude, his willingness to allow her to ask questions, and to take that risk of possibly embarrassing or offending someone. If parents have a general attitude of kindness toward others and sensitivity to the feelings of other people, their children will pick up on this and learn from them. It will be much less likely that a child’s comments or actions when they see someone who is different will come from a place of criticism or meanness, and much more likely they will just want to learn!

Love your children, teach them to love, and allow them to engage, connect, and explore that common ground that we as humans all share!


Wynter Pingel works as a braille proofreader at National Braille Press in Boston, MA.

Who’s Leading Who? Guide Dogs, Stereotypes, and Joy

When I started working at National Braille Press almost ten years ago, I had very little knowledge about braille or the blindness community. I was drawn to NBP because I love to read and was shocked that there was so little material available in braille. NBP’s mission was a social justice issue for me.

But I worried a bit about how best to convey that message.  I wanted to get the tone right and not pander to stereotypes that may raise money but do NOT raise awareness.

Liooking Out for SarahThen I read a speech that Diane Croft had given at the Guide Dog Users of Massachusetts Award Dinner on a print/braille book NBP produced called Looking Out for Sarah. The speech was addressed to Glenna Lang, the author, and her guide dog.  It resonated with me and changed my thinking forever.

Here is an excerpt of what Diane wrote:

I have lived through three movements: civil rights, women’s rights, and disability rights.  In all three cases much has changed and much remains the same.

And so, when a children’s book on blindness crosses my desk, I brace myself. Even after 20* years in the field, I am astonished to see the same age-old stereotypes that permeate our society reflected, either subtly or profoundly, within the images and text of a book. To be honest, when I saw the title Looking Out for Sarah, I wondered if this would be another book where someone “looks after” a blind adult.

But then I read the opening sentence: “In the early morning light…”

I assume you know with those five words you broke through one of the oldest and most deeply entrenched stereotypes–namely, that blind people live in the dark.

The book continues:

“Perry felt Sarah stirring about him…he waited eagerly for her feet to touch the floor.”

The reader feels an immediate sense of anticipation and even joy at the start of a new day. For the most part, sighted people do no equate blindness with joy.

Throughout the book, the question of who is looking after whom fluctuates between Sarah and Perry. How wonderful you didn’t err in either direction. Perry looks out for overhanging branches, but it’s Sarah who initiates their adventuresome cross-country journey.

Your important book addresses core relationship issues of dependency and independence, of submission and initiation. Sarah and Perry both initiate and give up control to each other depending on the situation.

Your beautiful book shows that in all healthy, joyful relationships, there is a constant sharing and shifting–back and forth–between who needs whom, who takes care of whom, and how we love one another.

*Diane Croft, Publisher at NBP, has worked at National Braille Press for over 30 years.