I was walking to the shops on Main Road in Plumstead. Suddenly, an elderly lady grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop. She very kindly told me that the traffic was heavy and that she would guide me across the road. Which she proceeded to do, despite my repeated protestations.
You see, I hadn’t needed to cross the road at all.
But there was no way for me to disentangle myself from her grip without possibly hurting her.
When we reached the other side of Main Road, I smiled and thanked her. Then I waited for her to go on her way and crossed back to where I’d originally been. And continued on my way.
Why is it that people feel it’s perfectly okay to reach out and grab me? Even worse, why do they feel it is a good idea to grab my guide dog’s harness and pull her – and me – in whatever direction they think we need to go?
For one thing, grabbing us and pulling us around is dangerous – it disrupts our balance since we are unable to control what is happening. For another thing, few people are trained in how to safely guide a blind person and guide dog. And those who are trained would know better than to grab us and pull us. And let’s not even get into the topic of how on earth you know where we do and do not need to go without actually asking us.
An effective guideline when engaging with a blind or visually impaired person is #JustAskDontGrab.
This is a phrase that was first used in social media by UK blindness activist Dr Amy Kavanagh and quickly spread around the globe.
What this means is that if you see Fiji and I walking around and feel we may need help, #JustAskDontGrab. If we’re navigating our way round a room and you think we might need help finding the doorway or anything else, #JustAskDontGrab. And if you think we may be wanting to cross a road and may like assistance – please, please #JustAskDontGrab!
Because the reality is that we probably don’t need any help at all. But, if we do, then we’ll really appreciate your asking if we’re okay.
Hello everyone! It’s me – Fiji!
Some of you already know that mom’s releasing her new book later this month. It’s full of stories about me and my doggy sisters… Well, it’s full of stories about mom and her life as a blind person as well. But I know the stories about me and all my doggy sisters are the best ones!
When mom’s back was turned I sneaked a look at the book and thought I’d share an extract with you – about me, of course. So, here it is…
“When my previous guide dog, Eccles, retired, I hesitated about applying for a new dog. I had just started working from home and wasn’t sure how much I’d be out and about or, in other words, how much I would need a guide dog.
When I was asked if I wanted my name to be added to the application list, I said no. The next few months proved what a bad decision that had been. So I added my name to the list. Or so I thought.
Then my niece Megan started raising funds for a guide dog as a school project. And when she and my sister-in-law, Sally, went to the training centre to meet some dogs in training, they asked how my application was going. The trainer was confused. Which resulted in a panicked phone call from me to the training centre.
Then Craig and I went to Greece and visited the ancient site of Delphi, where the Delphic oracle foretold the futures of many legendary ancient Greeks. As we wandered around the ruins, a stray dog ran up and started tugging at my white cane as if trying to steal it. I jokingly told Craig that maybe the Delphic Oracle was trying to tell me it was time to pack in my white cane because my new dog was on the way. We both laughed.
Imagine our surprise when I got a phone call shortly after we returned from Greece asking if I was available to train with my new dog?””
I especially love this story, because it sets the stage for the first meeting between me and mom. As you can imagine, I’m just about to enter the story – but you’ll need to buy the book to find out what happens next!
I moved to Cape Town at the start of winter. My impressions of that long ago first winter in Cape Town was that it poured with rain every day – for weeks on end. And it was a very cold, very wet sort of rain. Totally unlike the warm summer rain I had known when living in Durban.
Summer Rain is a nostalgic reflection on the gentle warm rain of my previous home city – hope you enjoy it!
Summer’s here again
Brings with it the rain on my window.
The air outside is still
Summer rain drifts, cool, through my window.
I know it’s not enough
To sit inside and watch.
Feel it, hear it, taste it, touch it
Believe in the summer rain.
Feel it, hear it, taste it, touch it
Free yourself to the summer rain.
Oil slicks all around
Dance with rainbows on the ground beneath my feet.
The stillness of it all
Makes no sound at all.
The warm mist on the road
Reveals the way to go.
Guitar break – one verse.
Like a summer kiss of grace
The warm rain on my face.
Feel it hear it, taste it, touch it,
Believe in the summer rain.
See it, feel it, hear it, taste it
Free yourself to the summer rain.
Lightning crashing down
Thunder rolls the ground – feels like home
As the storm clouds rise
A pale light warms the sky – brings me home.
The pale grey light of dawn
Makes sense of it all
Repeat chorus to end.
Many years ago, shortly after I lost my sight, my friend Johan invited me to lunch. He hoped that buying me lunch might soften the blow that he had lost a guitar I had lent him.
While Johan was ordering drinks at the bar counter a man approached him and started telling him how remarkable he was “for taking the blind girl to lunch”. He insisted on buying Johan a beer, presumably as a reward for the service he was doing by spending time with me.
On a number of occasions the same thing has happened when I’m out with my husband, Craig. Total strangers have walked up and told him that he is an amazing man because he is married to me.
It’s almost as if people think that being married to a blind woman must be a huge burden, or that I should consider myself unbelievably lucky to have a husband who is willing to put up with the onerous work that being married to a blind woman must bring.
Here’s the thing: I don’t believe that anyone is doing me a favour by spending time with me.
My blindness is merely one aspect of who I am. It doesn’t mean I am any less competent, less fun, less independent.
I’d like to think I am able to hold my own in most conversations, that I am independent enough not to have to impose on those who are with me, that I have a good sense of humour, and am interested in what is happening in the world around me.
Sure, I may need a little assistance every now and then. But I’d be mortified to think that I was a burden on those who choose to spend time with me.
If all this is true, spending time with me should be just like spending time with anyone else. Not a favour.
Thankfully, Craig is more than happy to take the time to put the matter straight and explain a little about the realities of living with a blind person. And the total stranger walks away a little more knowledgeable than they were.
But when Johan returned to the table and told me what had just happened, he was totally confused that I was upset. I mean, hey, he’d just scored a free beer!
Here’s what it comes down to for me – if you think you’re doing me a favour by hanging out with me, I’d really rather you don’t bother. I’d far rather spend my time with someone who values me for my own sake and for what I have to offer as a person.
If you’d like to understand a little more about the reality of living as a blind person, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book, which will be released in October – I’ll tell you all about it as we get closer to the launch date!
You wouldn’t believe how often people ask me if my blindness has given me extra sensory abilities – whether I can hear, scent, and taste better than a sighted person, and have a more sensitive sense of touch.
My honest answer? I don’t think so.
I don’t believe my other senses have improved since losing my sight. But I do believe that I pay them more attention than I did when I was able to rely on my sight. Which means they may appear to be better than they were.
When I was sighted I relied most on my sense of sight to give me input. I believe most sighted people do the same thing. Since losing my sight, I have used the input I gain from my other senses to fill in the gap caused by my visual impairment. My ability to interpret the world around me is dependent on what I can feel, hear, and smell. So I pay far more attention to the input I gain from my other senses than I used to.
When I’m walking to our local train station I use my other senses to help me identify where on my route I am – whether it be the scent of a particular plant, or the sound of a specific dog who always barks at Fiji and myself as we pass. Whether it’s a patch of gravel that helps me realize I am approaching the station itself, or a dip in the road that identifies the spot where we need to turn and cross the road we’ve been travelling for the past 10 minutes. My other senses compensate for my lack of sight and help me navigate the world.
My lack of sight means I experience travel very differently. Of course I miss out on the sightseeing that a sighted tourist would be able to do. But I regularly pick up things that a sighted person, who relies primarily on their sense of sight, might miss. For me, travel is a multi-sensory experience that incorporates every sense I have at my disposal. Which gives me a vastly different, but no less rich, experience of a destination.
When was the last time you focused on the input you could gain from your other senses? Why not take a moment to notice what you hear? Smell? Touch? And see what an extra dimension your world gains. Now, imagine doing the same when you are next in a new city or country.
There is so much that I wasn’t aware of because I was able to use my eyes to interpret the world around me. I’m not saying that my other senses completely fill in what I used to be able to see, but they certainly give me an alternate way to explore the world.
One day a courier delivered a package to my home. This was back before the pandemic changed the way we live our lives. Back in the day when couriers expected you to actually sign for a delivery.
On this particular day, the courier handed me the parcel and started to walk away.
“Excuse me,” I said, “Don’t I have to sign for the parcel?”
“Don’t worry,” he said in all seriousness, Ï know you can’t write so I signed it for you”
And then he left. While I stood there, stupefied with shock.
It’s not the first time that’s happened. And usually I make a point of calling the courier back and showing him that I am quite capable of holding a pen and signing my name on the delivery papers. But this time it simply happened too fast.
In truth, I can almost certainly do more than people believe I can. I think it’s because they don’t understand the techniques I use to accomplish tasks, and automatically assume it’s not possible. Which is why so much of my work is about explaining the tools and techniques I have at my disposal as a blind person.
Even people who know me well sometimes struggle to understand what I can and cannot manage, and occasionally default to assuming that a task is not possible for me. A colleague who has known me for several years once offered to make tea when she visited me. Because she thought I couldn’t do it myself.
I understand that people are often just trying to help. My husband sometimes gets frustrated when he offers help because he sees me struggling with a task. And it’s true he could probably do it quicker and easier than me. That’s part of the reality of being blind – things just take longer.
So, why do I insist on struggling? Mostly it’s to prove that I can live an independent life, not only to the world, but also to myself. But it’s also because I have a nagging fear that if I fall into the trap of letting others do things for me, that it will undermine my confidence in my own abilities.
While that fear might sound groundless, it’s happened to me before.
After my previous guide dog, Eccles, retired, I spent two years without a guide. During that time I depended heavily on my family and friends to help me get around. And I became exceptionally good at obeying their verbal instructions – when they told me to step up, I would do so; when they tole me to turn right, I would do so. I became a perfect little robot!
What I didn’t realize was that I was slowly losing the ability of interpreting the world around me using my own senses. Until I was on training with Fiji, my new guide dog, and it became horribly clear how out of practise that skill had become. Happily, with a lot of support from the guide dog trainers and my beautiful young Fiji, I managed to rediscover those skills and everything worked out fine.
But that fear is still with me. And it’s one of the reasons I feel uncomfortable letting people help me.
SoObviously, there are some things that I can’t do because of my blindness. And, of course, it’s not always imperative for me to refuse help all the time. But it’s also unnecessary for me to spend every minute of every day proving that I can do things independently. But it’s difficult to find a balance.
What message do I want you to take from this article? There are two – first, to understand why I am sometimes stubborn about struggling to accomplish tasks on my own. And secondly, that I can almost certainly do more than you think I can, even despite my blindness.
Next time you feel compelled to reach out and do something for me, please rather just ask if I need help. Then it’s up to me whether I accept your help, or if I want to do it myself. Even if it looks like I’m struggling, respect my right to make the choice. Even better, ask me what tools and techniques I’m using, so you can understand my world a little better.
Hi Everyone, it’s me – Fiji!
The most exciting thing happened to me last week – I won a competition!
Here’s what happened:
There was a competition at dad’s work, with prizes for the best face mask that people were wearing. And, without telling me, dad entered a picture of me wearing a mask.
Now, before you start questioning why I was wearing a mask, let me assure you that I know that dogs don’t have to wear masks when we go out. And I promise mom knows that as well. But mom asked me to put on a mask for a photograph a few months ago – I think she was trying to make a point on Facebook or something. And I was more than happy to oblige her… especially since I knew I’d get a tasty treat if I played along. And I’ll do almost anything for a treat!
Dad entered that photograph into his work competition. And I was one of the winners. Doesn’t that make you want to wag your tail with joy?
I admit that my prize is a bit odd. It’s a wine glass that looks like a face mask. I thought I might be able to use it as a water bowl when I go running with dad. But it’s made of glass and I wouldn’t want to break it. Besides, it might be difficult for me to drink from it considering its shape.
So maybe I should give it to mom. Maybe I can exchange it for more treats. What do you think?
Mom and dad found it very funny that one of the winners, Zinia, was a nice human lady wearing a dog mask. And another was a dog wearing a human mask – me, of course.
Maybe one day I’ll win a competition where the prize is dog treats. That would be wonderful!
When I first lost my sight I could see streaks of bright gold light when I was in direct sunlight. Over the years I’ve lost that ability.
Last week I wrote about the fact that blind people are not all the same – that we have individual strengths and preferences in how we accomplish tasks. The same can be said of our blindness – blindness is a spectrum that covers a range of degrees of visual impairment and partial sight.
Basically, I’m saying that we all see different things.
Even those of us who are totally blind may have different experiences of how that appears to us. For me, as an example, I “see” a blank background colour that differs (I think) as a result of the level of light in my immediate surroundings. It can be any base colour from a rose pink to a dark gray. But that’s not all I “see”
My vision is filled with a constant flickering of pure white, gold, green, red, and blue pinpricks of colour that flash on an off as I watch them. I often refer to them as being like visible pins and needles. They are very pretty and are constant – whether my eyes are open or closed.
But most of my friends who are totally blind “see” something different.
Looking beyond those of us who are totally blind, I have friends who have various degrees of residual vision. Some can still see a computer screen, though they need to use a screen magnifier to be able to read what is showing. Some can see blurred outlines of objects around them, but only if there is a significant contrast between the colour of the object and the environment around it. Some have a little usable vision during the day but are night-blind. And some people have eye conditions that mean their levels of vision varies from day to day.
There are almost countless variations on what we can each see as a member of the blindness and visually impaired community. Which is another reason why the tools and techniques we use may differ from one person to another – why some of us use mobility aids like white canes and guide dogs to navigate, where others may seem to be able to navigate around without difficulty in some circumstances and struggle in others. Why some of us have smart phones and computers that talk to us, and why some of us use screen magnifiers. And why on some days a particular person may see something that they may not see on another day.
In truth, visual impairment is a continuum that ranges through a wide variety of visual experiences. And that impacts on the way each individual member of the blind and visually impaired community engages with the world.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’d like people to know about my life as a blind person – things that I wish were more commonly known that would foster greater inclusion of the visually impaired community into society and the workplace. Because they would help people to understand my world a little better.
I thought it might be useful to share some of the things I wish people knew about blindness in general, and my blindness in particular. This is the first of a series of articles in which I’m going to do just that.
The first thing I’d like you to know is that we are not all the same.
I understand how tempting it is to assume that all blind people are the same – that we all use the same techniques, can do the same things, and have the same preferences. But it is just not true. We are all different. While we may have blindness in common, we are individual people with individual strengths, skills, likes and dislikes. And we may use different techniques to accomplish a task. I have blind friends who can do things that I cannot. And visa versa.
Let me give you a few examples.
I am a guide dog user. I love having the ability of navigating the world around me with my beautiful Fiji walking beside me. Many of my visually impaired friends prefer to use a white cane. Both are effective ways of getting around. Neither is better than the other. They are simply different.
I am not a braille user. I know how to read braille, but prefer accessing information on my computer using a screen reader, which is an audio programme that reads what is on the screen. That’s just my preference. Yet I know of many blind and visually impaired people who prefer using braille to access information. They have a braille display for their computer, read books in braille, and use a braille keyboard on their smart phone. Others may use a combination of audio and braille. It depends on each person’s preference.
A few months ago, my husband and I went to our local Mugg & Bean. I was presented with a braille menu. Which would probably have taken me a month to read – while I know the alphabet, my braille reading skills are almost non-existent. At the same time, I think it is commendable that the Mugg & Bean chain have braille menus for those who need them. Because many visually impaired customers will appreciate them.
I feel I ought to repeat the point of this article – to show that each individual blind or visually impaired person is unique. Some of my visually impaired friends will probably disagree with some of the articles I write in this series. And some will agree. Because we are not all the same.
So, while I would love for you to join me for this whole series of articles, please don’t fall into the assumption that what is true for me is also true for any other blind person you encounter. Chances are that they will feel much as I do – but it’s always better to take a little time to ask them about their own experiences and preferences.
Any idea what I’m going to write about next? Why not join me next week and find out…
Hi everyone, it’s me – Fiji!
My very favouritist thing in the whole wide world is guide dogging for mom. And running with dad. And Breakfast. And supper. And playing with my doggy sisters. And… Hang on a minute, mom wants a word with me….
Mom just told me that I can only really have one favouritist thing in the world. But I don’t agree with her – I think I can have as many favouritist things as I want. Because they are all my favouritist when I’m doing them.
Anyway, my other favouritist thing in the whole wide world is crunchwater. Because it’s cold and it’s yummy.
Crunchwater comes out of magic boxes in the very coldest part of the fridge. Dad or mom makes crunchwater by filling the magic boxes. I don’t think it’s actually crunchwater at this stage because occasionally some slops over the edge of the magic box and it tastes just like ordinary old water when we lick it up. So there’s definitely something magical about the little boxes and what happens in the coldest part of the fridge –the bit that mom’s just told me is called a freezer.
My doggy sisters and I get crunchwater as a special treat. Dad takes a magic box out of the freezer, removes pieces of crunchwater and tosses them towards my doggy sisters and me. And we leap into the air trying to catch them. Well, I leap into the air and usually catch my piece because I’m a guide dog and I’m just clever that way. My sisters aren’t quite as good as me – Emily mostly catches her crunchwater, but Allie is a bit hit and miss. To tell you a secret, she’s more miss than hit. But we love her anyway.
Emily and I crunch away at our crunchwater and it’s gone in a flash. As I eat it, my mouth and teeth get all cold for a bit, which is one of the best things about it. But Allie kind of nibbles at hers – she bites off a slither at a time and it lasts much longer that way. Sometimes it even leaves little pools of liquid crunchwater on the floor.
Dad and mom sometimes also have crunchwater, but they don’t eat it right. For some strange reason they put it into a glass with other liquid. I can’t understand why they do that… what a waste of wonderful crunchwater! But, as I’ve said before, sometimes humans are just weird.
Note from Lois: Craig and I first saw the term crunchwater in a tweet by Thoughts of Dog – @Dog_feelings and it just worked for us. That
Twitter account has given me hours of laughter and amusement and is well worth visiting!