Out and About with Fiji
You’d be amazed how often people ask me what I think my life would have looked like if I hadn’t become blind. I usually shrug and tell them I have no idea. But for some reason, I’ve been thinking about it recently. To be honest, when I do think about it, I tend to have more questions than answers. So, here are a few whimsical musings on my (possible) alternative life…
I was in my final year of my Bachelor of Arts degree when I lost my sight, studying English literature, ancient history and law. I had a vague idea that I might become an archeologist. Considering that I’m not an overly outdoorsy person, I guess it is more likely that I would have landed up in academia, or perhaps working at a museum of some kind. But maybe not. Because who knows what might have happened…
Would music have played such a major role in my life if I hadn’t become blind? Well, in some ways yes, because I almost certainly would still have loved listening to music. But it’s unlikely that I would have joined a band as a singer, keyboardist, and guitarist. Because it was only after I lost my sight that I had the courage to follow that particular dream. I struggle to believe that would have happened if I had remained sighted. But perhaps it would have. Who can tell…
The same is true about writing. The idea of becoming a writer had never even crossed my mind. I probably would have laughed if anyone had told me I would publish even a single book, let alone the six I have authored so far. Besides, since all my books relate to blindness and disability, I would have had nothing to write about. AT least, I don’t think I would have. But you never know…
And what about my professional speaking? Again, until I became blind I wasn’t interested in standing in front of an audience and sharing my story, or training, or facilitating workshops, or coaching, or any of the work that I do now. In fact, though I might have had other life stories to share as a speaker, depending on where my life had taken me, those stories would have been totally different. Somehow I think it’s unlikely that I would have become a speaker. Which means I probably wouldn’t have become part of Toastmasters, the Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa, or the Global Woman Speaker Mastermind that have all been such fundamental parts of my life. But, you never know…
And of course it’s unlikely that I would have got to meet the wonderful friends and colleagues I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years. I would almost certainly have had a totally different circle of people in my life. With the exception of my family, because I’m almost certain they would still have been part of my life regardless. Well, almost certainly. One never can tell.
One thing that’s for sure, I wouldn’t have been partnered with my three gorgeous, wonderful, beloved guide dogs, Leila, Eccles and Fiji. And my heart hurts just a little even thinking that I might not have had them in my life, walking beside me.
I would almost certainly still have been a voracious reader. It’s one thing that has been constant in my life. Apart from the first two years after I became blind, when I didn’t know how to access books. I felt that loss, until I learned how to find accessible audio and digital books. So I would certainly have still been a bookworm.
It’s also hard to know if I would have landed up living in Cape Town. Who knows where my life and my work would have taken me? It’s a question I have absolutely no way of answering.
I know I can’t answer any of these questions. But it’s been fun speculating.
Which isn’t all that strange, since alternative history and speculative fiction are amongst my favourite genres of book.
But now it’s time for me to reel in my wandering imagination and come back to reality… because Fiji has just nudged me to remind me it’s time for her and her doggy siblings to have supper.
Hello everyone, it’s me – Fiji.
Freedom and independence are very important to us guide dogs. After all, our purpose is to give our humans a greater degree of freedom and independence to do the things they want.
So I wagged when I saw that the theme of the latest ad campaign from the South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind is all about freedom. If you haven’t seen the advert yet, here it is – you really ought to watch it!
Mom and I attended the campaign launch in Cape Town last week. It was lots of fun, especially since I spent the morning surrounded by some of my bestest friends who are guide dogs and pups-in-training. In total there were 16 dogs there, so I won’t bore you with a long list. But I did have a chance for a catch up with pup-in-training Yale, because she and her mom gave us a lift to the event. And I also got to chat to guide dogs Billy, Gladys and Ronnie to share notes on some of the strange things our humans had been doing recently. I also got to meet Oslo, who is a service dog, so his job is a bit different from mine, but is still really important to give freedom to his human Andrew.
A few people have asked Mom if she and I are in the video. We’re not, but my nephew Obie is, together with his mom, Anel. I’m very proud of Obie for his acting skills – he looks fabulous! And I can now tell everyone that I’m related to a movie star, can’t I?
Anyhow, I really think you should watch the advert and see how important we guide dogs are in helping our humans. Just so you don’t have to scroll back to find the link, here it is again: https://youtu.be/7RQ7vspyLLc
Last week Guide Dog Fiji told you how we found ourselves at a remote part of Cape Town International airport, and how I subsequently upset her by climbing into a small airplane and flying away. Of course, there’s more to the story, because lots happened between the time I flew away and when I returned to have a frantically relieved guide dog leap into my arms.
The whole story started a few weeks earlier. When we were asked if Fiji was interested in being in the photo shoot, I was invited to go for a spin in the plane afterwards. Which I naturally accepted – I mean, who wouldn’t?
A few days before the shoot, the photographer asked how I felt about experiencing aerial acrobatics, or aerobatics. Now, you might not know this, but I’m not really an adventurous person. So my instinctive response was “Absolutely no chance!” But then I asked myself whether I might regret not taking up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And cautiously replied that I’d decide on the day…
Which is how I found myself sitting in a two-seater airplane, feeling like my body was being squashed as I experienced double the earth’s normal gravitational pull (2G). Then I felt the plane turn to the left and suddenly my body became weightless – it was like I was being stretched. Which, of course, was because I was upside down as the plane rolled.
What struck me most was how smoothly the plane rolled. I didn’t actually feel like the plane was flipping over, possibly because I had no visual cues and could only judge from what I was sensing through my body.
We did a few more rolls, pausing at various stages of the spin so I could see how I experienced flying sideways, and upside down. At first I felt somewhat detached. I was focusing on what I was feeling, rather than living the experience. It was only after the pilot and I chatted about how the rolls had felt to me that I began to assimilate what I was sensing with what was happening. Which brought me back into the reality of what was going on.
It was only in the final roll, where the pilot paused at each 90 degree position that my body and brain engaged totally. And, while it was breathtakingly amazing, the realisation that I had pushed my boundaries far enough for one day began to sneak up on me.
So, when the pilot asked if I’d like to experience a loop – going into a roll nose first rather than wing first – I shook my head and politely declined. Part of me regrets turning down the offer. Because I am curious what it would feel like for my body to be at 3.5G and how I would interpret a loop without the sense of sight. But there’s also part of me that is relieved that I didn’t give it a try.
A friend of mine joked that I wouldn’t have been as thrilled had I been able to see the ground in the place where the sky should be. And I suspect she’s correct. Even thinking about the world being upside down visually makes me a little anxious. But I didn’t feel that way at all when it happened, so it is probably because of my blindness.
Would I try aerobatics again? Absolutely yes! And I might even be brave enough to try a loop this time!
Oh, I forgot to mention that I also briefly flew the plane. I was amazed at how responsive the controls were – if I so much as touched the stick the plane would change direction or altitude. It was as exciting and nerve-wracking as the time I drove a car independently as a blind person, only magnified by about a million.
I’m busy editing a podcast episode where I talk about my experience of flight with friend and colleague Jeremy Opperman. So, if you’d like to find out more about my experience, watch out for that episode.
The episode, plus my entire library of more than 65 episodes of the podcast can be found anywhere you usually listen to podcasts – simply search for A Different Way of Seeing and you’re bound to find my show.
Hosting a podcast on accessible travel, I often have the opportunity to chat with interesting people about a wide range of topics. My last few podcasts have been no exception.
I recently interviewed Michael Hingson on the topic of long-distance air travel with a guide dog. Michael has had extensive experience on the topic, having travelled not only for work but also following his experience escaping from the World Trade Centre during the attack on 9 September 2001.
Together Michael and his guide dog Roselle walked down 78 floors of the World Trade Centre and navigated their way to safety. Michael tells the story of that day in his book “Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero”
Michael and his guide dogs have subsequently travelled around the world sharing their story. So he was the perfect person to interview on the subject of air travel with a guide dog.
You can hear some of Michael’s experiences in the podcast – http://iono.fm/e/1103477
While you’re there, why not listen to a few more exciting travel stories. And subscribe to the podcast so you won’t miss an episode. With 53 published episodes so far, there is plenty to enjoy!
It’s been a while since I updated you on Fiji’s book. And things are starting to move fast now!
Fiji and I have finished creating the content and the book has been proofread. Our next step is to add the photographs and to create a cover for the book… with Fiji on it, of course. Then we need to start shifting into the publishing and marketing phase. Which is going to be exciting for us both!
To my surprise, the book has turned out to be 27 000 words. Considering I anticipated it would be around 20 000 at a stretch, I was amazed to find it just continued to grow. Fiji and I kept adding stories. It’s been so much fun creating a book about Fiji’s perspective of the world. And those who have read it so far, including her puppy walkers, said they enjoyed it.
We can’t wait to share it with you! It will still be a while before it’s available. In the meantime, here is another short extract from the book. This time drawn from what happened when Fiji and I arrived home after being on guide dog training.
Here’s how Fiji remembers that experience:
“Mom and the man had a serious conversation on the trip to wherever we were going. I heard my name a few times but couldn’t figure out what it was about. I rather enjoyed snoozing contentedly at mom’s feet, curled up and occasionally resting my head and my front left paw on mom’s seat. Whatever they were talking about I knew I’d be fine.
The car eventually stopped and I lifted my head to stare curiously around me. The man got out of the car and closed the door, lowering his window to let in some cool air since mom and I were staying in the car. Then he opened the front door and three dogs bounded out and ran onto the grass.
I immediately wanted to go and join them and tried to climb through the open car window. Mom grabbed my collar and held me back and I started to whine and wriggle to get to the dogs. So mom opened her car door and I took a flying leap out of the car and went to introduce myself to my new siblings.
Introductions were quickly made, amidst much tail wagging and tentative play. Emily and I became friends right away – she was seven years old but was still happy to play with me. At fifteen years old, Calvin was already ancient by then and was a little grumpy, and mostly ignored me. But that was okay, because I had lots to explore and mom and Emily to play with. The third dog, Eccles, was mom’s retired guide dog and she seemed to be friendly as well, though she didn’t really want to play much either. She also tried lecturing me on how to look after mom best – as if I needed to be told! Still, I thought it would be disrespectful to ignore her so listened to what she had to say… before rushing off to explore some more.
Eccles and I had a polite conversation about who would get to sleep beside mom on the floor next to the bed. She felt she ought to retain that right. But I told her it was my spot now, since I was mom’s proper guide dog. The conversation went on for quite some time. And eventually we agreed to take it in turns – with whomever got there first winning the coveted spot. Which, of course, meant that I got to sleep nearest to mom most nights. Because I was so much younger and quicker than Eccles, and would race to the bed as soon as we’d had our night-time biscuits.”
We’ll let you know how to get hold of the book soon, I promise…
Who would have thought it? Fiji and I celebrate our fifth anniversary today! And what an amazing five years they’ve turned out to be – full of fun, adventure, learning, independence, sharing our story, and lots of wonderful companionship. Sure, there have been a few less than perfect moments, too. But so few and far between that they fade into insignificance.
Last year I shared a conversation between Fiji and myself in which we reflected on the four years we’d worked. And this past year has hardly been anything for either of us to brag about since we’ve not been able to add much to our adventures due to COVID-19. But, even with the little we are able to do right now, I am reminded of how much independence Fiji gives me and how much joy she provides.
Admittedly, there are a few things that have changed in the last year. For one thing, Fiji has turned into a vampire runner. By which I mean that she no longer joins Craig and Allie on their runs if they do so in the morning. Rather she waits for the sun to be well and truly down before being willing to head out and hit the road.
The guide dog trainer said she thinks Fiji is self-managing her running and that maybe she’s feeling the heat of a morning run more than she used to. So, rather than leaping up and demanding a run whenever she can, she is regulating both how often and how far she gets to run. I guess I have to acknowledge that Fiji is getting older – she is now 6.5 years old. But it’s still sad for me to see it in her behaviour… even if it’s only apparent in small ways like when she chooses to run.
Having said that, the vet told us last week that Fiji is in remarkable shape for a dog her age, and someone who encountered Fiji when she was walking with Craig the other day asked if they could buy one of her puppies. And she is still as playful and as loveable as ever – still leaps into the air to catch her crunchwater, chases her tennis ball, and plays rowdily with her doggy sisters.
More than that, Fiji’s discovered a new toy. A few months ago we found Eccles’s old squeaky toy. And when we squeaked it, Fiji came hurtling up from the other side of the house and leapt for it. And proceeded to squeak it and shake it with glorious abandon. Which is strange because she’s never shown any interest in it before
Every now and then we find her staring up at the dressing table where we keep the squeaky toy with a wistful look on her face. Until we pick it up and toss it to her. And then we have a leaping, shaking, tail-wagging gleeful Fiji once again.
Most importantly, Fiji comes running whenever I pick up her guide dog harness, twisting in circles and wagging as fast as she can. Her love of guiding is always a joy for me to experience. And I’m sure she and I will continue working together for many years yet.
A very happy and waggy anniversary to my precious guide dog companion – and many more adventures for us… And a successful book launch when we finish her book later this year. But we’ll update you on that soon, we promise…
I’ve had a YouTube channel for years. But I’ve never really done much with it. Okay, I’ve used it to post videos of my speaking, of Fiji and I working, and a few fun videos of my beloved dogs. But very little beyond that.
In 2017 I uploaded a video of Fiji and I riding on an escalator. I thought the cutest part of the video was that Fiji is wagging her tail all the way down the escalator, clearly loving the work she’s doing.
And for years that video limped along, being viewed every now and then by a curious YouTuber. Until the last few months.
Suddenly I began getting a stream of notifications from YouTube telling me that people were watching the clip. These were interspersed with notifications that people were following my channel. And I began paying a lot more attention to what was happening on YouTube.
Over the space of two months my subscribers leapt from just over 100 to 615. And the number of views of that specific video clip rocketed from a few hundred to over 204 000.
It s made me realize the power that YouTube can have. And that I need to be more strategic about sharing videos, especially if they include my beautiful Guide Dog Fiji!
So, watch out – we’ve got lots more videos in our plans!
PS: Here’s the link to that particular video. Why not take a few seconds to watch it after all, more than 200K people must be on to something! https://youtube.com/shorts/exDSDDDrKWM
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.
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…
Touch is important for a person who is visually impaired. It is one of the easiest ways to discover information about an object or the environment, either using your fingers or the tip of a white cane. But touch is also fundamental to the way a blind person communicates with other people. Which adds yet another level of complexity to the way we operate as we try to safeguard ourselves against COVID-19.
What do I mean by that?
When a sighted person is taught how to attract the attention of someone who is visually impaired, they are told to lightly touch the person on the arm or shoulder, and then identify themselves. Obviously, this isn’t an option when trying to social distance. Here’s a few suggestions I think might be an alternative.
Let’s say you are walking down a street with several people around, and see me approaching. If you know me, you can simply call out my name to attract my attention – from a safe distance, of course.
If you don’t know my name, it becomes harder. Unless I have Fiji with me, in which case I’ll probably take notice if anyone refers to me as the woman with the guide dog – I mean, how many women with guide dogs are likely to be nearby?
If I don’t have Fiji with me and you need to attract my attention, you could try referring to something specific about me or what I’m wearing – like calling me the lady in the red jersey, or woman in the blue raincoat. If you just try to attract my attention by calling out, “Excuse me!” I’m probably not going to pay attention – I’ll assume you’re talking to someone else and just continue on my way.
So, if you’re trying to attract my attention without needing to touch me, call out to me from a safe distance in a way that I know it’s me you’re talking to.
Touch is also fundamental when a visually impaired person is being guided by someone who is sighted. Even though we are trying to avoid unnecessary trips away from home, sometimes they are necessary. And sometimes we need a sighted person to guide us.
When this happens, the blind person would usually place a hand lightly on either the elbow or the shoulder of the person guiding them. Again, here are my thoughts on a few alternatives, taking the risk of COVID-19 into account.
Depending on the particular situation and what the people involved are comfortable with, there are several ways of guiding a visually impaired person. In the ideal world, a sighted assistant could walk a few steps ahead or beside me, and I would use my white cane or Fiji to follow them. It would make it easier to do so if the sighted assistant speaks or gives some other audio cue for me to follow. That way there would be no physical contact between me and the sighted assistant.
There are other ways to do it – using my white cane as a form of tether with each of us holding one end or, using some other form of tether like blind runners do. That way there would be some distance between me and the sighted assistant, while still giving us a secure way of remaining connected.
As a final suggestion, if physical contact cannot be avoided, I’d probably rather place a hand on the sighted guide’s shoulder and walk slightly behind them. Especially with the current recommendation to cough into your elbow, I’m certainly not going to be holding anyone there.
As always, it’s best to ask the individual visually-impaired person what works for them – these are my preferences, but we are all different. So, it’s best to ask.
I’d like to thank members of the LCS Assistive Technology community for sharing their ideas on both these questions – I really appreciated your confirming my thinking on these topics.