Last month I was honoured to be a speaker at the HerStory Women’s Global Empowerment Conference. The conference and the HerStory platform are the brainchild of Zimbabwean-born Getrude Matshe, who has been building the concept for the past few years, first as in-person conferences and currently as online summits.
My 15-minute presentation was on the topic of independence and it’s meaning for me as a blind person, touching on the need for greater inclusion of persons with disabilities into society and the workplace.
You can watch the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqLQvX5vnMs
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 was walking to the shops on Main Road in Plumstead. Suddenly, an elderly lady grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop. She very kindly told me that the traffic was heavy and that she would guide me across the road. Which she proceeded to do, despite my repeated protestations.
You see, I hadn’t needed to cross the road at all.
But there was no way for me to disentangle myself from her grip without possibly hurting her.
When we reached the other side of Main Road, I smiled and thanked her. Then I waited for her to go on her way and crossed back to where I’d originally been. And continued on my way.
Why is it that people feel it’s perfectly okay to reach out and grab me? Even worse, why do they feel it is a good idea to grab my guide dog’s harness and pull her – and me – in whatever direction they think we need to go?
For one thing, grabbing us and pulling us around is dangerous – it disrupts our balance since we are unable to control what is happening. For another thing, few people are trained in how to safely guide a blind person and guide dog. And those who are trained would know better than to grab us and pull us. And let’s not even get into the topic of how on earth you know where we do and do not need to go without actually asking us.
An effective guideline when engaging with a blind or visually impaired person is #JustAskDontGrab.
This is a phrase that was first used in social media by UK blindness activist Dr Amy Kavanagh and quickly spread around the globe.
What this means is that if you see Fiji and I walking around and feel we may need help, #JustAskDontGrab. If we’re navigating our way round a room and you think we might need help finding the doorway or anything else, #JustAskDontGrab. And if you think we may be wanting to cross a road and may like assistance – please, please #JustAskDontGrab!
Because the reality is that we probably don’t need any help at all. But, if we do, then we’ll really appreciate your asking if we’re okay.
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!
Date: 24 March 2020
Category: Disability Awareness, Audio,
**Craig, not sure if the podcast link will provide us with an image; please let me know
You’re walking down a road and see a person with a guide dog or a white cane approaching you. Do you offer to assist them? And if so, how?
One day, an elderly woman grabbed my arm and propelled me across a busy road. Then she walked off, no doubt feeling good for assisting the poor blind lady. Here’s the thing – I didn’t need to cross that road. But she didn’t give me the chance to say so.
The topic of how to engage with a visually impaired person and offer help became a hot topic on social media recently, due primarily to Dr Amy Kavanagh’s #JustAskDontGrab campaign. The campaign aims to change the way sighted people offer assistance to those of us in the VVI (blind and visually impaired) community.
In many ways I agree with the aims of the campaign. If I’m standing at the top of a flight of stairs figuring out the safest way to navigate them, I might get startled if someone suddenly reaches out and grabs my arm. It puts me at risk of losing my balance and falling down those stairs. So, #JustAskDontGrab has its place.
But truthfully, it’s a bit more complicated than that. What if there isn’t time to connect verbally before I put myself into danger? What if it’s a noisy or busy environment where I might not realize you’re talking to me? You need to consider what’s happening there and then.
But here’s the thing, most blind and visually impaired people who are out in the world are very capable of navigating our way around it. Almost all of the time. Except for the very rare occasion when we’re not. And we’ll usually ask if we need help.
Am I saying you should never offer assistance to a member of the VBI community? By no means. Because maybe it’s the one time we actually do need assistance. Just please, , rather than reaching out and grabbing our arm, or our guide dog, rather verbally ask if we need help. And, if you think we might not hear you, lightly touch our arm and then ask.
It sounds so simple, right? Yet, there’s so much happening in that moment that you reach out – metaphorically, of course – to offer assistance. And that’s the subject of a conversation Jeff Thompson, of the Blind Abilities Podcast Network, and I had a few weeks ago.
I’d love for you to listen to the podcast and let me know what you think. Whether you’re sighted or a member of the VBI community, I’m interested to know your thoughts.
Besides, you never know – it may help next time you’re walking down the road and see a person with a guide dog or white cane and try to figure out whether or not to offer assistance.
Do you know how hard it is to video Fiji guiding me across a road? It should be easy, right? But maybe not so much when you have one hand on the guide dog harness and the other hand providing dog treats at each step of the process. Because that leaves no hands to hold the phone to record the whole thing.
So, when a friend asked if she could video Fiji working as part of a lesson for one of the schools she works with, I jumped at the chance. Even better, she asked if Fiji and I could speak to the learners as well, which I’m always happy to do. Okay, I got to speak to the learners. Fiji only had to look cute- which she does very well!
Shani gave me the video – so here it is!
Craig, please add link here.
To some people stepping into a revolving door may not be much of an issue. But for me, standing there with my white cane, stepping into the revolving door was a matter of deep thought and planning.
Here’s why I find revolving doors scary:
1 Stepping in– as a blind person you have to figure out when it’s safe to step in without being hit by a door blade.
2 Walking through – it’s not easy to assess the appropriate walking speed to avoid connecting with the blade in front or being smacked on the back of the head by the one behind you.
3 Stepping out – sometimes it will sound different when it’s okay to step out of the door… but sometimes it’s not – I’d hate to spend the rest of my life walking round and round in circles captured by the revolving door.
Is it any wonder I call them revolting doors?
Let’s go back to where you left me – standing with my white cane on the outside of a building, with the revolting door in front of me. What happened next?
I found the right-hand side of the revolting door and gently extended my hand along the doorframe until my fingertips brushed against the edge of the blades as they passed. I let a few blades pass me so I could get an idea of how fast they were turning. That way I could gain a sense of when it was safe for me to step into the door and how fast to walk.
I knew the door would stop moving if I touched the blades so there was no risk of being knocked out by a mindless rampaging blade. Once or twice I accidentally tapped the tip of my white cane into the blade in front of me and the door froze. I’ll admit it was reassuring to discover how sensitive the door was.
And so I made my way through the door.
Stepping out was my biggest worry. In the shopping centre where I was putting my skills… and my courage… to the test I wasn’t able to use sound to judge when it was time to step out of the door. But a very kind gentleman, who I hadn’t realized was walking alongside me, told me I could step forward into the centre and all was okay.
Did I manage to travel through the revolting door totally independently? No, I didn’t. but here’s what I did achieve – I managed to push my way past the fear of using a revolting door on my own. Even if I did get help stepping out of the door, I’m sure I would have figured it out on my own eventually, and not spent the rest of my life walking in circles.
Next time I’ll do even better. Because I’ve proved to myself that there’s nothing to fear
So, maybe those doors aren’t so revolting, after all.
I’ll admit I was a tiny bit nervous when accepting Afsana’s offer to accompany me to Makhanda so I could perform in the Blind Date Show at the National Arts Festival.
I wasn’t nervous about Afsana accompanying me – I knew she’d be a great travelling companion and that I’d be in safe hands. Rather, it was the unfamiliarity of travelling with someone other than Craig that gave me pause. While I’ve known Afsana for several years, we’ve never really spent much time together and I wasn’t certain how well she understood the challenges of travelling with someone who’s not only blind but is also a Type 1 diabetic. Oh, not to mention her occasionally boisterous guide dog, Fiji!
Yet, what a great traveling companion Afsana turned out to be! We spent hours chatting – on the flight to Port Elizabeth, on the two-hour bus journey to Makhanda, and over several meals before meeting the others who were performing in the show. And Afsana connected with Fiji as well, even teaching her a new command (“Reverse, Fiji”).
When Craig joined us at the end of our second day in Makhanda I made a discovery that’s given me lots to think through. When Afsana and I were navigating our way round Makhanda I did so with a greater level of independence than normal. And certainly a greater level of independence than when Craig joined us.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Craig deprives me of my independence. He doesn’t. But, when I’m with him I fall into the habit of letting him do most of the work when he’s guiding me. It’s just so much easier since I don’t have to concentrate as much on what’s happening around me.
Whereas, since Afsana left it to me to tell her when I might need guidance, I tended to work it out on my own.
What I need to figure out is whether or not I should break the habit of letting Craig do more of the work, or if it’s okay since I manage on my own the rest of the time. In reality, I guess the answer is somewhere between the two. Regardless, understanding how I manage my own independence has taught me that I’m never too old to gain insights into how I live my life. Which is valuable to me.
And, having the opportunity of getting to know Afsana better remains one of the highlights of a truly unforgettable time in Makhanda. I’m so glad I accepted her offer to come with me on the trip.
The photo was taken by Afsana and shows Fiji and me sitting at the back of the bus travelling between Port Elizabeth and Makhanda.
You might remember that I started lessons on using a white cane shortly before I left for my trip to India. I shared a few articles on what I was learning just before I left. Today I want to let you know how I put those lessons to good use during my trip.
I spent five days working in the hotel. During the day I was on my own, except when I encountered people from housekeeping who came to clean the room or bring bottled water for those oh-so-necessary cups of tea. I didn’t mind the solitude. It gave me a chance to catch up on a project that’s been awaiting my attention for far too long – turning my book into an audio version.
But here’s the thing you might not have realized – being on my own meant I’d have to navigate my way round the hotel independently if I wanted to leave the room for any reason. And, since my trusty guide dog was back in Cape Town, I’d need to use my white cane to do it.
I know it sounds insane, but I’ve never navigated a hotel on my own. Not once despite having visited 21 different countries since losing my sight. I’ve always had a sighted guide to assist me.
The first time I walked to the bank of elevators on my own I was a little nervous. Even though there was no way I could get lost. Then I had to get to the restaurant level and find my way there from the elevator. Luckily, the restaurant played music so I listened closely as I stepped out of the elevator and used the sound as a beacon to guide me. Before I knew it, I was in the restaurant ordering lunch.
Buoyed by my success I decided to find my way down to the lobby to meet Craig when he returned from his day of meetings. And, to my joy, that also worked.
You may be wondering what made this trip different – why I felt comfortable navigating the hotel independently where I’d never done so before.
Part of the answer is that I felt more comfortable navigating independently. Even though I’d only had a few lessons, simply using my cane gave me the confidence to push my boundaries. And another part is that I had a really good incentive– to be able to get to the restaurant. Sure, I could have ordered room service, but I couldn’t bring myself to pay the room service prices when I could just walk down to the restaurant instead. If I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and used my white stick.
Now that I’m back in Cape Town I’ve restarted my mobility training. By the time you read this article I’ll have been taught how to navigate one of our local shopping malls on my own. Who knows what I’ll be willing to try next?
The video shows me navigating my way down the hotel corridor towards the elevators using my white cane.
Do you have any idea how bizarre it was for me to realize that I’m using my white cane to walk around independently for the first time ever?
Please don’t think I wasn’t taught to use a white cane when I first lost my sight. I was. But somehow the only time I used my white cane was on my lessons with the O&M instructor. Otherwise I asked family, friends, and fellow students to help me get around. Which is probably why getting a guide dog was such a revelation to me – I was able to walk around independently for the very first time.
In my defence, and in hindsight, I’d probably say that my inability… refusal? to connect with the idea of using a white cane was part of my adjusting to losing my sight. I was dealing with so much at the time, and learning so many new skills of living as a blind person, that my poor overworked brain just couldn’t cope with it all. And it was just easier to ask people to help me get around.
And that became the pattern. Even once I started working with a guide dog, on the rare occasions my dog wasn’t with me, I’d need someone to help me get to where I needed to go.
So, walking round my neighbourhood totally on my own, accompanied only by my white mobility cane, is such a profound difference for me.
It doesn’t mean I’m going to depend on my beautiful guide dog any less. I can’t even begin to find the words to describe the remarkable bond that exists between Fiji and myself – and how natural it feels to work with her. But it’s great that I’m developing cane skills for those times when she’s not able to be with me.
Talking about how natural working with Fiji feels, I found myself praising my white cane when I encountered a car parked on the side of the road on one of our walks… but at least I didn’t try to give it a treat for good behavior!
At least, not yet! ….
And now to move onto another topic for a while, in case you’re bored of hearing about my O&M lessons!