Out and About with Fiji

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Podcast on Long-Distance Air Travel with a Guide Dog.

The image shows a man sitting on a park bench with a yellow Labrador beside him.

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!

Update on Fiji’s Book

The image shows Lois and Fiji 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…

Five Wonderful Years with Guide Dog Fiji

The image shows Guide Dog Fiji licking Lois on the nose

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…

What do you mean we’ve had 200 K views???

https://youtube.com/shorts/exDSDDDrKWM

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

What I’d Like You to Know about My Blindness 03: Don’t Assume I Need Help

Lois using a phone

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.

What I’d Like You to Know about My Blindness 01: We’re Not All the Same

the images show hands tracing across a braille bookI’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.

the images show Lois sitting at a computerI 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…

Blindness, the Sense of Touch and Social Distancing

the image shows Lois wearing a mask 
the image shows Lois wearing a mask

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.
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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.

Social Distancing for the Blind Community

The image shows Lois walking along the side of a roa

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.
XXXXXX

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