A Sign of a Great Leader

NewImageI believe one of the characteristics of a great leader is the ability to make people feel seen, heard and acknowledged. This was a skill that the late Nelson Mandela demonstrated regularly, as can be seen from the numerous stories of the way he engaged with people from all walks of life.

Tomorrow marks the centenary of the birth of the great Madiba and I’d like to mark the occasion by sharing the stories of the times I was privileged to meet the great man himself.

My first chance encounter with Mr. Mandela took place in the Student Union at the University of KwaZulu-Natal shortly before I lost my sight. At the time I was still able to walk around without a mobility aid, as long as I was careful where I put my feet – I could still see everything but everything was blurred, as if I was looking at the world through a thick pane of frosted glass. As I navigated my way down a short flight of stairs I realized that I had very nearly placed my boot-clad foot down on someone’s shoe.

I looked up with an apology poised on my lips – and found myself staring into the face of the great man himself. Those of you who know me well will know that I’m seldom speechless but the words of the glib apology I’d been about to utter simply vanished from my mind.

Mr. Mandela smiled and softly murmured “Bless you, my child,” and then entered the hall where throngs of students had gathered to hear him speak. ,

Two years later Mr. Mandela capped me when I graduated. By then I was totally blind and needed sighted assistance as I crossed the vast stage, was capped by Madiba and then moved to collect my degree to thunderous applause. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, friends told me later that there had been two standing ovations at that graduation ceremony – one when we were addressed by Madiba and one when I was capped. And yes, I did manage to avoid standing on his toes that time!

What I remember best about those two chance meetings was the sense of calm and serenity that surrounded Madiba, and the way he made me feel like I had his complete attention with just the power of his presence, his focus, and a few simple yet genuine words. On both occasions I was merely one person amongst hundreds of others, yet he made me feel seen and acknowledged – a lesson that each of us in a position of leadership can learn and strive to emulate.

I still find it amazing what a strong impression those two brief encounters had on me – a lesson in the power of true and genuine leadership and the importance of truly being able to see, hear and acknowledge the people with whom we come into contact, no matter in how trivial a way.

Next time I’ll start sharing some experiences from my recent travels to Germany and Poland – it’s been a month since I returned so it’s high time I let you into some of my adventures!

Farewell, Faithful Friend

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It’s always heartbreaking to lose a beloved fur-child. It’s even harder when it’s a retired guide dog who has given so much of her life and energy helping you live the independent life you want. And harder still if you happen to be on another continent at the time.

Sitting in our Airbnb apartment in Wroclaw, Poland on the evening my retired guide dog, Eccles, passed away, I found myself reflecting on the 12 ½ years she and I had spent together.

I smiled when I remembered our very first meeting when Eccles refused to acknowledge my existence, waiting patiently for her beloved trainer to rescue her from the total stranger she’d been lumped with. And at how quickly the bond of trust and love developed between us despite that inauspicious beginning. I thought of how many hundreds of times she and I must have traipsed from home, to the train station, down to the office in Simon’s Town, and back again at the end of the day. And how she would grab her squeaky toy and bounce round the office with it, squeaking joyfully to let us know it was time to stop working and head home. I laughed, remembering how she had hidden under the bed for the first three months we had Emily – desperately trying to avoid the savage paws and jaws of the young pup – until she rediscovered her ability to play.

I recalled how Eccles in essence retired herself when she was 11 years old, preferring to stay snoozing on her blanket rather than accompanying me to events. And I remembered her last final months when she seemed to find her inner naughty puppy –testing boundaries that had been out of bounds to her as a guide dog – and most often getting away with her naughtiness because her love of life was simply to infectious for me to chastise her.
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Eccles was by far the gentlest of my 3 guide dogs. Where Leila tended to barge through people like an armoured tank (a trait shared by Fiji), Eccles would politely manoeuvre her way round people with a diffident but determined manner. She could also be a little scatter-brained – on one occasion she was so busy thinking about something else that she started walking in the opposite direction until I laughingly stopped her and turned her round.

Where Leila and Fiji would be quite likely to wander off and amuse themselves when they were off-duty, Eccles would prefer to sit at my feet until she was needed. Mind you, it was Eccles who pulled her leash out of my dad’s hand and wandered from one side of an auditorium to the other to find me when I was giving a presentation at a Toastmasters conference (you’ll need to get a copy of my book “A Different Way of Seeing” to read the whole story).

Though I have absolutely no doubt we took the right decision in letting Eccles go, I have to live with the feeling that I let her down because I wasn’t there with her at the end. I can’t express how grateful I am for the technology that made it possible for us to have a half hour WhatsApp conversation with our vet to really understand the options we faced. And I’m even more grateful for the strength and courage of our friend, Claire van Zyl, who was looking after our home and dogs while we were away – at least I know Eccles was with someone she knew and adored as she slipped into her final sleep. But it was inexpressibly hard not to be there and be able to say goodbye, and that pain will remain with me for a very long time.

Farewell, my beautiful Eccles, and thank you for the very many wonderful memories of our time together – I’ll treasure them always…
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Falling Back into the Habit

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I know, I know, it’s been ages since I published an article. It’s certainly not for lack of anything to write about. After all, I recently got back from an amazing trip to Germany and Poland about which I have lots to share. I also need to gather my courage and write a final post honouring my retired guide dog, Eccles, who passed away after a short illness. Then I want to tell you about some of the exciting blind travel work I’m starting on, and a media interview I did recently.

So yes, I have plenty to share with you.

But somehow I’ve just fallen out of the habit of settling down to write…

Today I took the decision that it was time to fall back into that habit. so here’s just a short note to let you know that I’m back – back home, back writing, and back willing and eager to share more of my experiences living my ordinary life without sight.

I was startled to see that Fiji also neglected to write an article while I was away – clearly she was just having too much fun on her holiday from guide dogging. Maybe I’ll wake her up just now and ask her if she actually plans on writing a post this month. But you know what they say about letting sleeping dogs lie?

All I’m saying is watch this space…

From in the Air to On Air

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Okay, so technically I’m still on leave. In fact, I’m probably jetting into Cape Town International Airport right about now. But I wanted to let you know about an exciting event that’ll be happening next week.

I’ve been invited to share some of my experiences of travelling the world without sight on the Travel Show on Hashtag Radio with Marlize Stander and Patrycja Oosthuizen.

The show will take place on Thursday, 28 June from 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM and I’ll be explaining how I’m able to build a picture of places I visit using my remaining senses, and sharing some of my stories of the extraordinary places I’ve been and experiences I’ve been privileged to have.

If you want to find out more about the show, here’s the link: http://hashtagradio.co.za/members/marlize/

And if you want to tune in and listen, you can stream the show from here: www.hashtagradio.co.za

This won’t be my first time at Hashtag Radio – a few months ago I was interviewed by Cindy Pivacic about my book, A Different Way of Seeing, which is when the photo was taken.

And, just like last time, Fiji will be joining us in studio and maybe she’ll get to participate in the conversation… you just never know!

Louis on the Block – Another Great Place for Guide Dogs

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It’s really not hard to find an enticing restaurant in Cape Town, no matter what type of food you’re looking for. I’ve already written a number of reviews of places that welcome Fiji and this is another of those. But this restaurant, Louis on the Block, in Bergvliet, has an added bonus – they’ve made their venue accessible to people who are mobility impaired as well.

Craig, Fiji and I have eaten at Louis on the Block in Children’s Way, Bergvliet a number of times. Not only do we enjoy their delicious, reasonably priced food and good service, but I’m always impressed by how disability-aware they are.

My guide dog, Fiji, is always warmly welcomed into the restaurant. On one momentous previous visit Fiji was offered not just a bowl of water but a snack as well, which she was most put out when I declined. I know some of you may be thinking it was unfair of me to deprive her of her snack when Craig and I got to eat. Here’s the thing: if Fiji learns to look for food at restaurants she’s slipped over the line into begging – and a begging dog is downright unpleasant for everyone!

What really impresses me about Louis on the Block is that the restaurant is also accessible to those with physical disabilities. Though there are steps up to the main entrance, they have a second stepless entrance that’ll easily accommodate wheelchairs. The tables aren’t crammed together so the space is fairly easily navigable, and the restrooms are also spacious enough to allow access to a wheelchair.

Over the years I’ve been to a large number of restaurants that are happy to accommodate my visual impairment and my guide dog. Sadly I doubt the same is true for a person with a mobility impairment. So it’s really great to experience a restaurant that is so aware of the needs of all their customers, no matter what!

If you’ve never been to Louis on the Block in Bergvliet, Fiji and I would definitely recommend you give them a try –with apologies from Fiji for not being able to vouch for the food herself.

Paws for Thought – But not When I’m Running!

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I’m really missing mom right now. I miss having her around… and I definitely miss working with her and guiding her to where she needs to go. I’m sure she’s having a wonderful time in Germany – wherever that is – and that she’ll be home soon.

But I miss her and can’t wait for her to come home.

I also really miss dad… and being able to take him on a run every now and then. So that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

There are huge differences in working with mom and running with dad. When I work with mom I watch out for her every step, checking what’s happening in front, beside and above me as well as what’s happening right at my paws. With mom I know to stop at steps and how to tell her if we need to step off the pavement to avoid an obstacle. I also have special techniques for helping mom cross roads, go up and down flights of stairs, find strategic route markers so she knows where we are and go round cars that are parked by the side of the road (we often have to walk on the side of the road where we live). And I know how to find escalators, which might just be my favourite part of my job. And mom rewards my good behavior by giving me small treats – which I definitely deserve.

With dad we mostly just run. Sure, there are places we stop (like at the train crossing and main road) but generally we don’t stop running for other things. It does mean I have to be super-aware of looking to see if any evil squirrels are around, but we’re usually running too fast for me to pay them much attention anyway. With dad I don’t stop for steps or find strategic poles since he doesn’t seem to use his sense of touch to help him discover where we are. And when I’m running with dad I can simply be a dog, rather than a guide dog.

The only problem is that dad doesn’t give me treats…. Which I’m sure I could teach him to do if I really tried hard.

Oh, I wanted to tell you that the photograph shows me proudly wearing the race medal I got for completing the 5 km Day of Races with mom last year, which is the only medal I’ve been given despite all the running I do…and I got it for walking with mom, rather than running with dad.

Which only goes to show that humans really don’t make sense.

The Best Way to Follow My Next Adventure

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I can hardly believe it! After the fairly relaxed planning phase of the past few months, followed by the utter chaos of getting everything finished over the past few days, we’re finally off on our latest adventure – Berlin, Krakow and a number of exciting places between the two.

I’m going to continue posting articles while I’m away, but will probably only get to post once a week, rather than my usual twice.

If you’d like to follow my latest adventure, I’ll be posting regular updates and photos on my Facebook page. If you haven’t already subscribed (or rather liked) the page, it’s Lois Strachan – A Different Way of Seeing, and you can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/loisstrachanspeaker

Now, I think it’s about time I grab my bags, hug my dogs and go and catch a plane…

Pro’s and Con’s of Travel: My Personal Perspective

Cds 2016 11 26 08 38 08As I sit considering what clothing to pack for my imminent adventure in Germany and Poland I find myself idly constructing a list of the pro’s and con’s of travel from my own particular perspective.

the pro’s are fairly easy. I love experiencing new places and using my remaining senses to build a picture of the place we’re visiting. I know it’s a very different way to see the world. People often say they don’t understand why I travel, let alone how. For me there’s something special about experiencing a place using my senses of hearing, taste, scent and touch. And, of course, discovering the stories that surround the cities and sites we visit so I can use my (rather over-active) imagination to imagine myself into the lives of the people living there.

I also learn more about my own life and skills when I travel. Somehow, leaving my usual routine gives me new insight into what I’m able to do and often gives me a more objective way of seeing my own life.

Travel also teaches me about different cultures. While I’m privileged to live in a wonderfully diverse country, travelling makes it easier to observe diversity since we’re actively trying to experience the reality of a different place and people.

For me, those are a few of the pro’s of travel. So what are the con’s?

Let’s be honest, most of us love our home comforts – knowing where everything is in our kitchen, being able to arrange our clothing the way we like, and especially the comfort of our own bed. We don’t have any of those familiar comforts when we travel. For many that’s a decided disadvantage. And I’m no different – I like my own space and the way I’ve adapted it to serve my needs.

For me there’s also the challenge of leaving my beloved guide dog behind and being dependent on a sighted guide. Okay, I know that sighted guide is my husband and that he really doesn’t mind assisting me and describing what’s around me. But still, its hard to leave behind the glorious sense of independence that working with Fiji gives me. Besides, she’s so attentive and loving (and occasionally demanding) that it’s hard knowing I can’t simply reach down and feel her curled up next to me. I miss that when we travel.

These are the thoughts buzzing round my head as I prepare for my trip. And, while I can’t wait to head off on my latest adventure, there’s a small part of me that’s already looking forward to coming home.

I Couldn’t Believe My Eyes… Umm, My Ears!

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Isn’t life unbelievable? Mere weeks after I posted a lament that I couldn’t find an accessible word search, I found one, and a whole lot more great word and trivia games – all in one place!

It happened like this: a blind friend of mine posted on Facebook that she was looking for a word game she could play on her iPhone using Voice Over (the in-build screen reader app on IOS products). Of course I replied with a suggestion to try Seven Little Words, a word builder game I’ve been enjoying for some time. Someone else mentioned something called Huboodle and I couldn’t resist downloading the app to take a look….

Huboodle is a game pack designed by AppA11y Inc. , which currently includes 8 different games, though more could be added in the future. It’s a free app with some in-app purchases but these are in no way necessary for you to play any of the games. It’s available in several languages: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Malay, Simplified Chinese, and Spanish and is completely accessible using Voice Over. But don’t be misled into thinking the games are only for people who are visually impaired. There are many sighted people who also enjoy playing – the accessibility is just an added bonus.

Amongst those 8 games are two accessible word search games. I was so surprised when I saw that I almost fell off my chair. Then I almost jumped to my feet and danced with joy.

Strangely enough I’ve only played one word search so far. I’ve been enjoying some of the other games, Word Builder and Trivia Trail.

Word Builder is a game where you build as many words as you can from a selection of letters you’re given. Each level has different letter groups and a different target of words to find. You also gain extra points for finding words that aren’t on the list they give you, so it’s a great game for anyone with a fair vocabulary. I must admit I get particular pleasure every time I find those bonus words.

The other game I’m really enjoying is Trivia Trail. The goal is to work your way through 10 multichoice trivia questions within a limited amount of time. I’ve heard the time limit is 50 seconds but it feels a lot longer when I’m actually playing. The added trick is that you go back to the start of the level if you get a question wrong which takes extra time.

Sure, Huboodle also has some games of chance and I’ve dabbled with poker, blackjack and the wheel of fortune but none of them have really grabbed me. I guess I’m just not a gambler by nature. Other games I haven’t tried so far are a memory game, Simon Says, a multiplayer Ludo board game called Ludo Palooza and, of course, there are the two word search games which attracted me in the first place.

Okay, enough time writing… I’ve got some more words to build!

Getting to Grips with the Question of Employment… Or the Lack Thereof 03

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I’d love to know how many blind and visually impaired people have been unsuccessful in a job application because of barriers in the hiring process – both physical barriers and the more insidious barriers of unconscious bias. Want to know what on earth I’m talking about? Well, read on…

Sometimes the systems used in the application process disqualify us automatically – like when a driver’s license is a requirement for a job. Granted, there are some jobs that a driver’s license is needed, but for many it’s more about being able to get around independently. Here’s the thing, having an absolute requirement for a driver’s license automatically excludes a number of people, including anyone whose visual impairment is significant enough to prevent them from driving.

Sometimes an applicant may need to complete a range of aptitude tests, which may be conducted on computer. While some of these systems are designed with the needs of visually impaired candidates in mind, many of them are not.

I’m not saying that employers deliberately try to exclude visually impaired candidates. I really don’t believe that’s the case. What I’m saying is that perhaps these systems need to be reviewed to ensure they are inclusive of those with special needs.

Another potential barrier to employment are the unconscious assumptions that may affect the way people see disability. I’m startled when friends I’ve known for some time ask questions that reveal they don’t know what I can and can’t do. If people who know me struggle to understand my abilities and skills, how much more difficult must it be for someone in a hiring position who doesn’t engage with a visually impaired person on a regular basis.

Sadly, though we may try to deny it, the usual assumption made by people is that disability means inability, and that’s simply not true. Our abilities are no different – all that differs is the way we access information and accomplish tasks.

How often in job interviews are disabled candidates confronted with questions about how they accomplish the most basic tasks – How do you dress yourself? How do you cook a meal?– which have absolutely nothing to do with the job. The frightening thing is that if those conducting an interview can’t imagine how a visually impaired candidate can accomplish the fundamentals of independent living, how on earth will they be able to conceive of the same person carrying out the requirements of a job?

My plea to companies is that they relook at the systems they use to invite and assess candidates to make sure they aren’t inadvertently excluding those with a disability. I know of at least one company who specialize in this field and would be happy to refer them. Likewise, if I can assist organisations in my capacity as a consultant raising awareness of how we accomplish tasks and challenge the assumptions people make about disability and inability, I’d be more than happy to chat to you.

PS Please share this article with anyone you know who might need to read it – let’s work together to increase the inclusion of those who are visually impaired into society and the workplace!

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