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…
My previous article was about the non-fiction books I’ve been reading this year. Today, to show you that I haven’t been neglecting my love of fiction, I want to share a very special book with you: Guiding Emily, by Barbara Hinske.
I don’t often get to read books about people becoming blind as an adult. I guess it’s not really a popular subject for authors unless, like me, they have a personal connection with visual impairment. Yet, this is what happens to Emily, one of the main characters of Guiding Emily.
Guiding Emily tells the story of a young woman who loses her sight on her honeymoon – the impact it has on her brand-new marriage, on her family, friends, her work, and on the way she perceives herself. It’s also the story of Garth, a delightful young black Labrador who is determined to become a guide dog.
I found parts of Emily’s story hard to read because of the parallels with my own life. What Emily was experiencing emotionally, and the basic training she underwent, brought up strong memories of my own journey after I lost my sight. Emily’s journey is well researched and is credible – unlike some of the fiction books about blindness that I’ve read!
I’m sure I’m not the only reader who will find herself cheering Emily on as she triumphs over the mental, emotional, and physical realities of losing her sight and fighting her way back to independence.
I found the young Garth’s chapters of the story delightful. They were a tonic to brighten the more challenging parts of Emily’s journey. I laughed at his mischievous puppy self and the antics he got up to while being puppy-walked. He reminded me of my beautiful guides – Leila (who was also a black Labrador), Eccles, and Fiji. I could so easily imagine the puppy versions of my girls getting up to the same antics when they were being puppy-walked. Well, to be honest, I could also imagine them doing so after being matched with me. Which made the whole Garth part of the story even funnier and cuter for me.
Why am I telling you this?
My main reason for writing A Different Way of Seeing was to help people understand a little about the world in which I live as a blind person. I believe that we will only gain greater levels of inclusion in society and the workplace once people understand what we are able to do, and the tools and techniques we have at our disposal. Guiding Emily shows the way a visually-impaired person engages with the world around her. As Emily learns the techniques and tools, so too do the readers, even if they have had no previous experience with visual impairment. So, it is a great book for anyone who is interested to learn more about visual impairment. Not to mention that the book is simply an enjoyable read – with drama, betrayal, despair, triumph, and romance of a sort. But you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out what I mean.
Why not hop onto Amazon and get hold of a copy of Guiding Emily – I’ll bet you’ll fall head over tails in love with young Garth!
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.
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.
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!
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:
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!
I love helping to raise funds so that more guide dogs can be placed with their human partners to help them live a normal life.
Mom, dad and I will be going to this great event organised by Love Your Guide Dog – I really hope to see you there so you can also help more blind or visually impaired people to get a guide dog like me.
I really don’t understand humans sometimes. Like when mom and I go to a shop or a bank and we see lots and lots of people standing behind one another. Mom calls this queueing.
Dogs don’t queue. Nor do most other animals, though I’ve seen young ducks following their mothers in something a bit like a queue. But at least they’re moving. Unlike humans in shops – they simply stand there doing nothing for what seems like a long time before moving forward a single step and then doing nothing again.
For me, it seems far more reasonable to simply take mom to the front of the line of people. I mean, doesn’t that make sense to you? But mom always laughs, pats me and says we have to wait our turn.
Like I’ve said, it doesn’t make sense to me. But I do it because mom asks me to and I love my mom lots. Besides, as a well-trained guide dog I’m meant to do what she says, even if I don’t understand why.
Sometimes the shops are clever and don’t make me and mom stand in a queue – they send someone to assist mom and we wait by the counter until they help us. Now, that makes more sense to me.
Yet, even at our local shop, where they do this, I often see other people standing in those peculiar lines. But at least mom and I don’t have to do it.
I’ve long become accustomed to the reality that I won’t always understand the way humans behave. They’re not dogs, after all. And that’s okay, because I also don’t understand the way cats, birds or children behave. But it would be nice if someone could explain things to me every now and then.
It was my birthday on Friday. My 5th birthday, to be exact. And I celebrated in the best ways possible!
My celebrations started on Thursday evening when mom, dad and I went out for dinner. And the whole team from the Cape Town office of the SA Guide-Dogs Association were there to wish me for my special day. I know they said they were there for a work function because one of the alphas was visiting from Johannesburg, but I’m sure they were really there for me.
Then, dad took me and my doggy sister, Allie, for a run on the evening of my actual birthday. It was lots of fun and it didn’t even rain while we were running, which was even better.
And then I got a big marrow bone to chew on Saturday. My doggy sisters Emily and Allie also got bones. That’s because I was brought up to believe that sharing is caring. Besides, if they hadn’t also got bones to chew, they’d have tried to steal mine.
The only thing that would’ve made my birthday better is if mom and I could’ve gone for a walk… but when mom went outside to check the weather, she found it was raining. So I had a good play with mom and my sister Allie instead.
Mom asked me if I considered myself to be 5 or 35, which I believe is the human age equivalent. If it’s all the same, I think I’ll stick to being 5… from what I’ve seen of humans, 35-year old’s have far less fun than 5-year old’s!
When mom and I were in Makhanda the last thing I expected was to have an all-too-brief playdate with another guide dog. So, when mom, dad and I slipped away from the farewell meeting of all those involved in the Blind date Concert and disappeared into the depths of the SA Library for the Blind building I wasn’t certain where we were going.
Much to my joy, we turned a corner and there was a black Labrador – a guide dog named Vanilla. Well, to be exact, a recently retired guide dog named Vanilla.
And it was such fun to say hello and exchange quick nose sniffs and tail wags. I could tell that Vanilla wasn’t very well – mom told me later that she had cancer – so I was careful to be gentle while also having a good play.
Sadly, Vanilla has since gone to doggy heaven, but I know she’s having great fun playing there with all the other guide dogs, including my aunts Leila and Eccles.
I’m just glad I got to meet her, even if we had to rush off to catch the bus for our trip home to Cape Town.
The photo is of me and mom and Vanilla and her mom, Pasha.