It’s not often I feel nervous when going to facilitate a session on disability at an organisation. Yet that was definitely the way I was feeling as I climbed out of the Uber to run a recent day-long training at the Cape Town Society for the Blind (CTSB).
I wasn’t nervous about facilitating a daylong session, nor for presenting to students at CTSB – facilitation is one of the things I do on a regular basis and my relationship with CTSB over the past two years has meant I’ve spoken for them at a number of events, including presenting a keynote at their AGM, and another at a fundraising dinner, and I presented the commencement address at their graduation in 2018. So neither of those aspects made me anxious.
Rather, it was the topic that had my nerves working overtime – they’d asked me to speak about romantic relationships. And that topic is definitely out of my comfort zone.
Here’s the thing – I’m happy to tell the story of how Craig and I met (it was my guide dog, Leila’s fault). I’m equally willing to talk about how we accommodate my visual impairment with things like household chores. But going any deeper than that is just too personal for me. So, what made me nervous was how I’d reply if the conversation drifted into areas where I wasn’t comfortable.
In the end, the session proved to be both easier and harder than I’d anticipated. I described what I thought a good relationship might look like, and some signs that might indicate a relationship isn’t healthy. I shared stories from my life to illustrate what I meant in each case. Then the group spent a few hours asking questions and sharing their own experiences about relationships.
What made it easier than I’d initially feared was the fact that the group respected the boundaries that I wasn’t really comfortable talking about. What made it harder was to listen to some of the stories of what the students had experienced, and were still experiencing.
I left the CTSB with a profound sense of gratitude for all that I have in my life. Not to mention a sense of respect and awe for the strength, resilience and determination of the students I’d been privileged to spend the day with.
PS: Fiji also had loads of fun, since she got to meet two other guide dogs, which happens only rarely when I speak at organisations.
It is appropriate that I am starting this series of blogs today, as it is international guide Dog Day and this post is about my (almost) brand new guide dog, Fiji.
Here is a link to a video in which SA Guide Dog Trainer, Cheryl Robertson (who trained Fiji and I last month) takes a blindfolded TV presenter on a walk with a guide dog:
At one point in the segment Cheryl stresses the importance of trust between the guide dog and the human partner, and, as a blind person working with a guide dog, I cannot tell you how important this trust relationship is. Trust is a crucial part of any relationship: between colleagues, team members, spouses, partners and friends. Think of the consequences of not being able to trust those who are part of your business and personal lives. How will that affect the relationship, the team, the organisation, your productivity? Now think of those same relationships being founded on a strong sense of trust – how does that play out in your life?
When Fiji and I started working together I struggled for a few days to develop that all important sense of trust. I would imagine that most new guide dog owners experience at least a degree of the same struggle that I did. It is one of the reasons that the guide dog trainers work so closely with the newly paired teams, to ease them over those first tentative steps when trust is not yet formed. Over the 2 weeks of training, when you are with your dog almost permanently and when you walk and work on various routes and in various situations, that trust slowly begins to form.
A little while back I posted an article about Fiji and I becoming lost on one of our walks (see A True Story of Human Kindness, on 14 April). That small incident – getting lost – impaired my trust in Fiji – not by a huge amount, but nonetheless, that trust was affected.
Since then, Fiji and I have been working really hard to rebuild the trust that we need to work as an effective team – Fiji needs to trust that I am comfortable, relaxed and in control of what is happening around us… and I need to trust that Fiji is going to follow my instructions without taking shortcuts that could put us into danger… or get us lost. Trust is a two-way street – we can only build it together.
Each successful walk we take continues to build that trust, and will do so for months to come – we are already working better than we were when we got lost, and every walk just keeps on getting better and better!
If trust is impaired in any of your relationships, remember that you can only improve that trust by showing trust, working on creating an environment where trust can germinate, and by acting in a way that shows that you are reliable and trustworthy – hoping that the other person (or people) involved will value the trust you offer and do the same.