Out and About with Fiji

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Social Distancing for the Blind Community

The image shows Lois walking with Fiji along the side of a road

As we all continue to experience the challenges of lockdown, social distancing is becoming almost a regular part of our lives. But have you thought about the challenges social distancing poses for someone who is blind or visually impaired?

A few weeks ago, my guide dog, Fiji, wrote a guest blog on my Beyond Sight Blog about her feelings about social distancing. Yes, it was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek perspective for me to share, but the challenges are real – and not just for guide dogs!

Here’s how I experience social distancing, and some of the ways you can help me, and people like me, to ensure we keep safe when we’re out and about.

If I’m walking along a busy road and there is masking noise, like passing cars or wind rustling tree leaves, I might not hear you approaching. So, I might get closer to you than is safe. It would really help me if you could recognise that I might not be able to take evasive action– either make a sound so I know you’re there, or take the initiative and ensure we are a safe distance apart.

The painted lines in shopping queues are invisible to me and my white cane (or my guide dog) Unless you’re aware of a shopping centre that has created tactile lines, I have no way of knowing where the marks are. It would really help me and my guide dog if you can give us verbal guidance of where we should stand, and when we can move forward.

Never before has the #JustAskDontGrab Campaign been so important for the visually impaired community. I, like most of my blind friends, have countless stories of people grabbing us in order to attract our attention, or in order to move us physically. Nowadays that is simply not a safe option. We need people to speak to us when offering help.

Yes, there are technologies we can use to help us maintain social distancing. I could use the Be My Eyes app and ask a sighted volunteer to help me navigate safely. Or I could make use of a Sunu Band, a band that is worn on the wrist and gives tactile feedback when I’m approaching something. Or someone. Both are options for me.

But let’s be honest, I’m not keen to wave around my iPhone when I’m out and about in public. It’s just asking for trouble. And the cost of the Sunu Band puts it out of reach of most blind and visually impaired South Africans.

Which means we have to do the best that we can using our own skills and the help of those around us. People like you.

So, next time you see Fiji and I walking down the road, please speak to us to let us know where you are, and be willing to step out of our way as we walk past. Next time you spot me in the queue at Blue Route Mall with my white cane, speak up and let me know how to move from one painted line to the next as the queue progresses. And please, please don’t reach out and grab for Fiji or myself to guide us – ask us what form of help will be most safe and most comfortable for us all.

Thank you – Fiji and I really appreciate your thoughtfulness!

Paws for Thought on Social Distancing

the image shows a grinning Fiji wearing her harness

Over the past few months I’ve become used to the strange things happening around me. I’m okay with mom wearing a face mask when we walk, even if the voice commands she gives me sound a bit muffled. I’m used to mom and me not going out to different places. I can accept that mom needs to spend most of the day working at the computer. I’m even used to dad being around all the time. But the one thing I just can’t figure out is social distancing.

Most of the reason I’m perplexed is that my guide dog training didn’t include a class on social distancing. Mom’s tried to explain it to me but I just don’t get it.

As a guide dog, I know I shouldn’t walk up to people and distract them. So that’s not the problem. But it doesn’t mean I’m trained to walk a specific distance away from them. Or that I’m comfortable walking far into the road if mom and I need to pass slower walkers – first and foremost I’m trained to keep mom out of danger, and I don’t think it’s safe walking into the road like that.

I’m really glad mom and I haven’t had to go to the shops, because I think it would be hard for me to remember to stop at the painted lines on the floor that keep people a safe distance from each other. But then, I’ve never been able to figure out why people stand in queues. Or how to do so – I’m trained to go straight to the counter. So shopping would be doubly stressful for me now.

At least mom is able to hear where other people are when we walk and take evasive action. Because it would be very confusing if my training told me to do one thing and social distancing told me to do something else. But, you know, even though I trust mom’s judgement, I’d still like to do something to help. Because I’m a guide dog. And that’s what I do.

If you have any clever suggestions on how I could help mom maintain social distancing when we’re out and about, I’d love to hear them.

A Guide Dog’s Joy and Excitement

the image shows Lois wearing a brightly coloured mask, standing outside with her guide dog, Fiji.

After almost six weeks of being confined to home during the Level 5 lockdown, I wasn’t sure how my guide dog would react to once again wearing her harness and working with me. Okay, I knew she’d pull like crazy, because that’s what she does after a few days without working. So I had no illusions about how much pulling a six-week break was going to warrant!

After working together for over four years I was fairly certain that the break wouldn’t impact on her ability to work. Or her enthusiasm for guiding. By now Fiji and I know each other pretty well. What did concern me slightly was whether her excitement would override her excellent training – would she remember what she’d been trained to do?

I decided to have back-up with me the first time we walked, just in case. So my husband joined us for our first time out. As did our youngest dog, Allie, who walked with Craig. At least, that was the plan.

What a bad mistake it turned out to be!

Allie is used to running with Fiji. And I really mean with her – they run side by side flawlessly. So, poor Allie didn’t understand why she and dad were walking behind Fiji and mom. She whined, and she pulled, and she did doggy star-jumps to try and catch up with Fiji and me. Which totally put Fiji off her game.

Fiji kept trying to see what was bothering her sister. At first, she tried turning around to see what was going on. When that didn’t work, because I kept her moving forward, she tried to walk into the middle of the road to try and catch sight of Allie out of the corner of her eye. In desperation we tried allowing Craig and Allie to walk ahead. Only then Fiji was the one pulling like a steam train to get back out front.

So we figured we’d just have to deal with two slightly crazy dogs. But at least Fiji and I got to be out front.

Apart from that, Fiji did well on her walk.

The second time we walked, Craig hopped on his bicycle and cycled round the neighbourhood, checking in on us every now and then as we walked.

Which was fine. Except that every time he cycled past us, Fiji wanted to dash off after him. When he was going in the same direction as us it wasn’t so bad – we simply walked a little faster until he was out of sight. But whenever he appeared in front of us and rode past, Fiji immediately tried to turn round and run after him. I didn’t know whether to laugh at her enthusiasm, or growl at her naughtiness.

Since then Fiji and I have been going it alone. And she’s working brilliantly. Maybe she’s burned off the initial excitement and she’s once again used to walking her routes. Maybe she was just distracted by Craig’s presence… and Allie’s. Regardless, Fiji and I have slipped back into the easy rhythm of working as a team. And I totally love the experience.

I’m grateful that Craig was willing to help me manage my anxiety on our first two walks. But it is immensely liberating to be able to walk on my own with my beautiful Fiji.
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An Unexpected Mask Complication

the image shows Lois wearing a brightly coloured mask, standing outside with her guide dog, Fiji.

Like most South Africans, I was excited when we were allowed to exercise at the start of Level 4 lockdown. To be honest, the ability to get out and walk with my highly frustrated guide dog was wonderful. I didn’t even mind having to wear a face mask. Yet, when it came to our first walk, I encountered an unexpected problem

As I stepped outside my garden for the first time in six weeks, with a deliriously happy guide dog at my side, I realized the mask I was wearing was restricting my hearing. Not too much, but enough that I was aware of it and it made me a little anxious about walking.

I use my hearing as an important tool to help me navigate the world around me. Usually, I use it to listen for approaching traffic. Now, when we need to be aware of social distancing, hearing also helps when that traffic is made up of other people. Particularly with more people around due to the limitation on the hours we’re allowed to exercise.

Obviously, the most important criteria for a mask is that it must be as effective as possible in preventing me from potentially catching the virus. What’s the point, otherwise? It must cover my nose and my mouth adequately and be secure enough that it’s not going to slip off my face. Beyond that, I’ve learned that some designs work better for me than others.

If I can, I’ll prefer not to wear a mask with loops that hook behind my ears to keep them in place. Because that’s what affects my hearing. Rather, a mask that ties behind my head allows my ears to be free and my hearing is unobstructed. Although I need to be sure the mask is tied tightly enough that it won’t come undone when Fiji and I are out and about.

My favourite mask so far is the one I’m wearing in the image – not just because the bright colours make it beautiful to look at – yes, masks can be fashion accessories these days – but mostly because it is held in place by two pieces of elastic that I pull over the back of my head. It is secure and my hearing is unobstructed. So that’s the first mask I reach for when leaving the house.

Make no mistake, I’ll use a mask that is held in place by other means when that particular one is in the wash. After all, it’s more about managing risk than being comfortable. But it’s definitely my preferred mask.

I am grateful that I am able to have a selection of masks to choose from. I know many of our people are not so lucky. If I only had a mask that restricted my hearing, I would wear it. But I’ll admit I’m grateful to have masks that not only work well, but are also safer for me when I walk.

So Much Time on Our Hands

the image shows Lois and her guide dog.Over the past month or so, it feels like every time I hop onto social media or download my e-mail, I’m overwhelmed by the most amazing offers, urging me to sign up for an online event (now discounted), a webinar (also discounted), or an online course (ditto).

And I’ll admit I’ve been sorely tempted to take advantage of more than one of these fantastic offers.

But here’s the thing. Even though, like much of the world, I’m working from home, I’m struggling to find all this free time that the mails and posts tell me I ought to have. Because I can’t seem to find it.

I’m spending as much time at my computer as I was before the lockdowns came into place. And regularly find myself standing up at the end of the day wondering where the time went.

Admittedly, I’ve been taking advantage of the time to finish things that have been languishing on my “to do list” forever – things I really want to get round to but never seem to have the time. I’ve also picked up playing music again and am having vast amounts of fun sharing songs with friends and family on Facebook Live every week or so. And I’m finally starting to catch up on all the podcasts that have slowly been accumulating on my feed. Apart from the French language tutorial podcasts, which seem to have fallen by the wayside a little since lockdown started.

And then, of course, there’s my usual work developing my writing and speaking businesses – radio interviews, my regular blog articles, the international magazine I write for every second month, the travel podcast I host, and the ongoing work to update my book and convert it into an audio format.

Not to mention housework. And being a captive slave to the whims of my dogs, who are overly full of vim and vigour because they aren’t able to go for walks and runs like they usually would. I know Fiji’s frustrated that we haven’t been out and about as usual, though she’s hiding it well.

So, I’m perplexed about where to find all this spare time I keep hearing about. Any idea where I should look? I’ve searched around the house, checked in case it’s hiding in the back of a little used closet, and even looked under the bed (much to the confusion of Fiji, who was sleeping there at the time, but to no avail.

But I’m going to keep hunting, because I’d really love to take up some of those (very discounted) offers that keep coming my way!
XXX

And Then the Lights Went Out!

The image shows a blonde Labrador Retriever grinning at the camera

Last week I told you about the Love Your Guide Dog event that Fiji and I attended in Fish Hoek, Cape Town. I promised to tell you a little more about the fun evening we had.

I knew it was going to be a great evening when we arrived to be met by several other guide dogs, service dogs and pups-in-training. I mean, how could it be anything but brilliant with so many four-paws around! Fiji and I had a chance to catch up with some old doggy friends and their owners, and also to meet some wonderful teams we hadn’t met in person… umm… in dog? And all the furry friends were very well behaved – I don’t think I heard any growling or snapping from anyone. Though one or two of the pups did decide to add their voices during the guest speaker’s presentation.

Talking about the guest speaker, we heard from Zelda Mycroft, mother of inimitable ability activist Chaeli Mycroft, from the Chaeli Campaign. Zelda spoke about what it’s like being a mother to a highly independent and enterprising child with a disability – a refreshingly different perspective.

And then the lights went out…As did the sound…

And no, it wasn’t load shedding. It was actually a fault in one of the sub-stations and it left the whole of the Fish Hoek area without power for the rest of the evening.

From our perspective, I don’t think it placed much of a dampener on the evening. The organisers were well prepared for any eventuality – they had gas heaters to keep the food warm, and there were candles on the tables. Of course, for those of us without sight, it was pretty much business as usual. But we did see some creative problem solving going on, with people using the flashlights on their mobile phones to enable the sign language interpreters to communicate with the hearing impaired attendees, the servers being quick on their feet navigating their way round the many dogs stretched out on the floor, and speakers who suddenly had to contend with no amplification in a venue that seats 150 people… quite a remarkable feat all round!

Nor did the lack of illumination stop us from having a fantastic evening. Even if it wasn’t quite as we’d expected it to be.

If you’d like to find out more about the Love Your Guide Dog movement, here’s a link to their Facebook group.

Of course, you’ll probably fall in love with the many photos of beautiful pups-in-training. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Pride Comes Before a Fall

The image shows Lois and Fiji walking through a room of people

Pride comes before a fall. Or so the saying goes. And, of course, sometimes it’s all too true. Even when not taken literally – after all, I didn’t actually fall.

Let’s go back a bit and I’ll explain.

Fiji and I were attending the Love Your Guide Dog event in Fish Hoek. Love Your Guide Dog is an annual fundraiser for the South African Guide-Dog Association for the Blind organised by two wonderful ladies who are service dog owners – Janice Salthouse and Dawn Pilatowicz. It was our first time attending, and I’d been asked to propose the thanks at the end of the evening.

The event started with an introduction and walk-through of all the working dogs and puppies-in-training. And their respective humans, of course. And, with my typical stubbornness, I decided that Fiji and I would be introduced, and walk from the entrance to our table without sighted assistance. After all, Craig would be at the table and I was sure Fiji would walk straight to him without a problem. Which is where the term pride becomes relevant.

Because, you see, when we were about halfway to our table, my guide dog suddenly veered off towards another table to say hello to someone. And then proceeded to cause chaos by pulling me behind her through a forest of tables and chairs as she tried to reach Craig. All of which could have been avoided if I’d swallowed my pride and accepted sighted assistance.

What made it funny was that we’d been asked to provide a brief comment on something unique about our dogs for the introductions. And it was at the precise moment when Janice, who was reading the introductions, read that Fiji was easily distractable that Fiji veered so vastly off course… demonstrating exactly what I’d written.

When Fiji and I took part in a show at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival last year, our show’s producer told me I should consider trying stand-up comedy. Maybe Fiji was simply trying to show me how exquisite her sense of comedic timing is. Maybe she was just wanting to say hi to whomever was at that table. Or maybe she just got distracted. I’ll never know for sure.

Regardless of her rationale for doing what she did, Fiji landed up getting the first laugh of the evening.

And what a fun evening it turned out to be. But you’ll have to wait for next time to hear the details…

With thanks to Tania Robbertze Photography for the photo of Fiji and I at the event.

Celebrating Four Years

A dark-haired woman sitting on the floor with a blond labrador

Today is a special day – Fiji and I met for the very first time exactly four years ago, on 28 February 2016. I can hardly believe my beautiful guide dog and I have been working for that long. In many ways it feels like it was only yesterday that we met. Yet I can’t deny that our bond has grown much stronger over that time.

I thought it might be fun for Fiji and I to reminisce on that meeting. Here’s a transcription of our conversation.

Lois: I wasn’t certain what to expect when we first met. And I was a little nervous because I could still remember how dismissive my previous guide dog, your sister, Eccles, had been when she and I met.

Fiji: Well, mom, I was also a bit nervous – at least you’d had a guide dog before so you kind of knew what to expect. For me it was all brand new. So, when Cheryl brought me into the room, I looked at you and didn’t know what to think. Especially when you sat on the floor and watched me sniff my way around the room. I really didn’t know what you expected of me. So I eventually wandered over, as if by accident, and sat down hear you. But not too near, just in case.

Lois: I remember that. I was curious to see what you’d do. And I was glad you decided to curl up close enough that I could reach out and pat you.

Fiji: Oh come on, did you really think I’d pass up the opportunity of getting patted? You know how much I love it!

Lois: Fair enough. But I didn’t know that back then. I also remember that the first time you made me laugh was later that night, when Cheryl and I came into the room and found you curled up on my bed, with your head on my pillow. It was just so cute! So completely naughty. But so cute!

Fiji: Would you believe me if I said I was actually just trying to warm the bed up for you, Mom? Besides, it’s not like you were using it right then.

Lois: True. I really shouldn’t have left you in the room when I went to chat to Cheryl. No wonder you decided to try your luck.

Fiji: Exactly (Fiji wags her tail)

Lois: After that we got on fairly well. And we seemed to work well together.

Fiji: Well, it didn’t take me long to realize that you were already quite well trained and that I’d just need to work on a few small things to get you back into top form. Even though you did seem a bit nervous at first. So I think I managed to train you quite fast, with the help of Cheryl and Joel.

Lois: Do you remember when I went home to visit your doggy sisters during training?

Fiji: Of course I remember. I was very cross with you… And very happy when you came back the next morning, though I didn’t want to let on. I leapt up and grabbed your arm to tell you I wasn’t going to let you get away with behaviour like that again – that you were my mom and that I was to be there to look after you. And then you hugged me and I forgave you.

Lois: I think we’ve had a pretty good last four years, don’t you?

Fiji: For the most part. We’ve had some fun adventures and have met some lovely dogs and people. We’ve gone to plenty interesting places. But I’ve also been worried about you a few times -like when you tripped over that step and hurt yourself. And when you went away for a week because you got sick. And when you left me with dad and went to do something in Ghana. I always miss you when you go away without me. Because I love working with you and want to be with you always.

Lois: I know sometimes I go places without you. I always want to take you, but sometimes it’s just not possible. But I always come home, don’t I?

Fiji: Yes, you do. And then I grab your arm again to remind you that your place is with me and my place is with you. And then you hug me and everything’s fine again.

Lois: So, Fiji, what’s going to happen in the next four years?

Fiji: I think you’re going to walk me three times a day every day. And you’re going to start feeding me lunch as well as breakfast and supper. And you’re going to actually let me chase the squirrels when we see them.

Lois: Umm, maybe not.

Fiji: Oh. Well, I had to ask…

Fiji and I also want to send out a huge thank you to those who have been part of her journey to this point – her puppy walkers, Jenny and Mike, Beata and Piotr, all the wonderful people at the South African Guide-Dog Association for the Blind, the hundreds of adults and children that Fiji and I have been privileged to talk to, and of course all our friends and family – human and canine!

Thinking about the first day I met Fiji makes me realize how much independence she’s given me and how much I’ve been able to accomplish in the time we’ve been working together. She is a generous-natured and loving dog with a number of unique quirks – some of them totally endearing… some not so much. As I write this, she’s lying curled up by my feet, enjoying the cool air from the ceiling fan. With one eye and ear open, just in case I need her to do something.

You’ll be able to read more about our adventures together when the updated version of A Different Way of Seeing 2.0 gets released shortly – as an ebook and as an audio book. There’s plenty of Fiji stories in the book, I promise!

Happy anniversary to us, Fiji – and many more wonderful years of working and playing together!

Speaking at The Adventure Kids Club

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It’s no secret that I’m nervous when speaking to groups of young children. For one thing, I know I’m going to have to work hard to get them to focus on what I’m saying when all they really want to do is meet my guide dog, Fiji. But it’s also hard to know how well the youngsters grasp the concept of blindness and what it means in my life.

This nervousness probably explains why I actively seek the opportunity to talk to learners. After all, don’t they say the best way to work through your fears is to confront them? In reality, getting to spend some time explaining what life is like for me as a blind person always gives rise to a fascinating conversation between myself and the youngsters concerned. And a recent visit to the Adventure Kids Club in Cape Town was no exception.

My audience was a group of fifty youngsters and a few adult coordinators, who sat patiently as I spoke about my life and then asked a flood of questions, ranging from how I eat, right the way through to what techniques I use to ensure I’m not excluded when it comes to social activities with sighted friends. The Adventure Kids Club is a community organisation set up by Maria Strachan in Ysterplaat in Cape Town. Maria started the group as a way of inspiring and encouraging youngsters from the community, many of them coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. And, in case you’re wondering about the coincidence that Maria and I have the same surname, yes, our respective husbands are cousins.

As often happens when Fiji comes with me to speak at a children’s event, the youngsters had most fun when they got to come and say hello to her, and she loved the attention. It’s always so cute to see Fiji surrounded by a group of youngsters who want nothing more than to give her love and play with her. Only, maybe this time I gave my dog a run for her money on how to hold the kid’s attention – Maria asked me to bring my guitar and play a few songs for the group. Which I did – to an enthusiastic reception. Here’s a short clip of one of the songs I played:

https://www.facebook.com/cdstrachan/videos/10158090119251468/

Ultimately, I think both Fiji and I were lucky that we’d finished talking to the youngsters before the ice-cream arrived – I’m not sure that even a guide dog can capture a child’s attention when facing competition like that!

You Want Me to Talk about What?

several people sitting around a table, including Lois Strachan

It’s not often I feel nervous when going to facilitate a session on disability at an organisation. Yet that was definitely the way I was feeling as I climbed out of the Uber to run a recent day-long training at the Cape Town Society for the Blind (CTSB).

I wasn’t nervous about facilitating a daylong session, nor for presenting to students at CTSB – facilitation is one of the things I do on a regular basis and my relationship with CTSB over the past two years has meant I’ve spoken for them at a number of events, including presenting a keynote at their AGM, and another at a fundraising dinner, and I presented the commencement address at their graduation in 2018. So neither of those aspects made me anxious.

Rather, it was the topic that had my nerves working overtime – they’d asked me to speak about romantic relationships. And that topic is definitely out of my comfort zone.

Here’s the thing – I’m happy to tell the story of how Craig and I met (it was my guide dog, Leila’s fault). I’m equally willing to talk about how we accommodate my visual impairment with things like household chores. But going any deeper than that is just too personal for me. So, what made me nervous was how I’d reply if the conversation drifted into areas where I wasn’t comfortable.

In the end, the session proved to be both easier and harder than I’d anticipated. I described what I thought a good relationship might look like, and some signs that might indicate a relationship isn’t healthy. I shared stories from my life to illustrate what I meant in each case. Then the group spent a few hours asking questions and sharing their own experiences about relationships.

What made it easier than I’d initially feared was the fact that the group respected the boundaries that I wasn’t really comfortable talking about. What made it harder was to listen to some of the stories of what the students had experienced, and were still experiencing.

I left the CTSB with a profound sense of gratitude for all that I have in my life. Not to mention a sense of respect and awe for the strength, resilience and determination of the students I’d been privileged to spend the day with.

PS: Fiji also had loads of fun, since she got to meet two other guide dogs, which happens only rarely when I speak at organisations.
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