walking

What I’d Like You to Know about My Blindness 04: I Don’t Have Super-Abilities

The image shows Lois using her sense of touch to explore the Athens Museum

You wouldn’t believe how often people ask me if my blindness has given me extra sensory abilities – whether I can hear, scent, and taste better than a sighted person, and have a more sensitive sense of touch.

My honest answer? I don’t think so.

I don’t believe my other senses have improved since losing my sight. But I do believe that I pay them more attention than I did when I was able to rely on my sight. Which means they may appear to be better than they were.

When I was sighted I relied most on my sense of sight to give me input. I believe most sighted people do the same thing. Since losing my sight, I have used the input I gain from my other senses to fill in the gap caused by my visual impairment. My ability to interpret the world around me is dependent on what I can feel, hear, and smell. So I pay far more attention to the input I gain from my other senses than I used to.

When I’m walking to our local train station I use my other senses to help me identify where on my route I am – whether it be the scent of a particular plant, or the sound of a specific dog who always barks at Fiji and myself as we pass. Whether it’s a patch of gravel that helps me realize I am approaching the station itself, or a dip in the road that identifies the spot where we need to turn and cross the road we’ve been travelling for the past 10 minutes. My other senses compensate for my lack of sight and help me navigate the world.

My lack of sight means I experience travel very differently. Of course I miss out on the sightseeing that a sighted tourist would be able to do. But I regularly pick up things that a sighted person, who relies primarily on their sense of sight, might miss. For me, travel is a multi-sensory experience that incorporates every sense I have at my disposal. Which gives me a vastly different, but no less rich, experience of a destination.

When was the last time you focused on the input you could gain from your other senses? Why not take a moment to notice what you hear? Smell? Touch? And see what an extra dimension your world gains. Now, imagine doing the same when you are next in a new city or country.

There is so much that I wasn’t aware of because I was able to use my eyes to interpret the world around me. I’m not saying that my other senses completely fill in what I used to be able to see, but they certainly give me an alternate way to explore the world.

Paws for Thought on My Solo Adventure

The image shows a blonde Labrador

Before I tell you my story, I want to make sure you understand that I wasn’t trying to run away from home. I love mom and dad and my doggy sisters, Emily and Allie, and know I have everything I could ever need at home. Well, apart from lunch, which I still don’t get, despite having asked for it forever. But I have absolutely no reason to run away – home is simply the best place in the whole wide world!

But that didn’t stop me going on a solo adventure when I noticed the gate wasn’t closed properly. I looked around to check no-one was watching and then just quietly walked out, leaving my sisters waiting for mom to let them back inside. Then I trotted down the road and started sniffing around on the sidewalk.

A car pulled up beside me and a friendly human voice asked me if I was lost. I looked up and frowned at him – of course I wasn’t lost, I knew exactly where I was. At least I sort of did.

The friendly man encouraged me to jump in his car. Which of course I did because I love going places in cars.

After a sadly brief drive, the friendly man called someone and a different, but equally friendly man invited me to come into his house. So, I walked in and made myself comfortable.
To be honest, I thought the men looked familiar, so I was totally relaxed at being in a different place. Besides, mom and I travel to new places all the time. At least, we used to. Not so much at the moment, for some inexplicable reason.

A few minutes later, I heard dad’s voice calling me. After a quick sniff around the garden, which I hadn’t had a chance to explore yet, I hopped into dad’s car and we went home.

I could feel dad was upset about something but had no idea what – clearly one of my sisters had been naughty while I was on my solo adventure. And mom was in floods of tears when we arrived home, so it must have been something really naughty. But I ignored her because it had nothing to do with me. Or so I thought.

Mom hugged me and I wagged to show her that everything was okay. Through her tears she kept asking if I was okay, which startled me, because I was just fine. I tried to tell her all about my solo adventure and eventually I think she understood, because she stopped crying and hugged me again.

But, you know, I never did figure out what my sister had done. Or even which one had been naughty. Because neither of them seemed to be in trouble. I guess humans are just strange!

Lois’s Note: It turns out that Fiji was rescued by our local vet, who lives a few roads away. Throughout the experience Fiji seemed oblivious of the panic she created by wandering off. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my life! Thank goodness for Andrew and Michael – the brothers who run our veterinary clinic. And, when all is said and done, I guess that all’s well that ends well.

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.
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An Unexpected Mask Complication

the image shows Lois wearing a brightly coloured mask, standing outside with her guide dog, Fiji.

Like most South Africans, I was excited when we were allowed to exercise at the start of Level 4 lockdown. To be honest, the ability to get out and walk with my highly frustrated guide dog was wonderful. I didn’t even mind having to wear a face mask. Yet, when it came to our first walk, I encountered an unexpected problem

As I stepped outside my garden for the first time in six weeks, with a deliriously happy guide dog at my side, I realized the mask I was wearing was restricting my hearing. Not too much, but enough that I was aware of it and it made me a little anxious about walking.

I use my hearing as an important tool to help me navigate the world around me. Usually, I use it to listen for approaching traffic. Now, when we need to be aware of social distancing, hearing also helps when that traffic is made up of other people. Particularly with more people around due to the limitation on the hours we’re allowed to exercise.

Obviously, the most important criteria for a mask is that it must be as effective as possible in preventing me from potentially catching the virus. What’s the point, otherwise? It must cover my nose and my mouth adequately and be secure enough that it’s not going to slip off my face. Beyond that, I’ve learned that some designs work better for me than others.

If I can, I’ll prefer not to wear a mask with loops that hook behind my ears to keep them in place. Because that’s what affects my hearing. Rather, a mask that ties behind my head allows my ears to be free and my hearing is unobstructed. Although I need to be sure the mask is tied tightly enough that it won’t come undone when Fiji and I are out and about.

My favourite mask so far is the one I’m wearing in the image – not just because the bright colours make it beautiful to look at – yes, masks can be fashion accessories these days – but mostly because it is held in place by two pieces of elastic that I pull over the back of my head. It is secure and my hearing is unobstructed. So that’s the first mask I reach for when leaving the house.

Make no mistake, I’ll use a mask that is held in place by other means when that particular one is in the wash. After all, it’s more about managing risk than being comfortable. But it’s definitely my preferred mask.

I am grateful that I am able to have a selection of masks to choose from. I know many of our people are not so lucky. If I only had a mask that restricted my hearing, I would wear it. But I’ll admit I’m grateful to have masks that not only work well, but are also safer for me when I walk.

Paws for Thought on Moments of Great Joy

I think I’m the happiest guide dog in the world right now… I might even be the happiest dog in the whole wide world. Even though I know there are lots and lots of happy dogs out there.

The reason I’m so ecstatic is that mom and dad have both got over their fear of the gate to outside! I’m overjoyed that everything is better. It looks like I won’t have to approach anyone to come and retrain them.

I don’t know what changed to make them less scared but, to be honest, I don’t need to know. All I need to know is that we can go outside and do what we love.

On Friday and Saturday, dad took me and my sister Allie for a run. And on Sunday he took Allie for a run and then took my other sister Emily for a walk. I could have gone with them, but was feeling a little stiff – two runs after forever of no exercise is tiring, you know. So I stayed behind and looked after mom.

I was a very happy dog by the end of the weekend.

And then, joy of all joys, mom picked up my harness and took me for a walk yesterday morning. It was such a wonderful experience! Okay, it wasn’t exactly my most proficient walk. But that was because dad and Allie were walking behind us, and Allie kept on whining. Mom had to keep reminding me to focus and walk straight, instead of walking into the middle of the road so I could catch sight of what was bothering Allie. It looked like she was really giving dad a hard time, pulling, and doing vertical lift-off jumps. Turns out that she was trying to catch up to me and mom. When I realized that was what was bothering her, I stopped worrying about it and just walked like I ought to.

So now I’m not only a very happy dog, I’m an incredibly happy guide dog. And that’s how it’s meant to be.

I know I should probably keep an eye on mom and dad to make sure they don’t slip back into their bad habit of avoiding the gate. But, for now, everything is just about perfect, and I’ll deal with that if it happens again.
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Paws for Thought on Strange Behaviour

The image shows a blonde guide dog on harness

The past few weeks have been very strange for me and my doggy sisters. We’re all feeling a little uncertain and confused.

For one thing, mom and dad are around all the time. In many ways, that’s a good thing. Because they’re our people and we love having them with us at home. Especially since they’re always happy to pat us if we walk up to them such bliss!

On the other paw, mom and dad aren’t taking advantage of the time very well. I mean, I can’t even remember when mom and I last got to walk. And dad is only running up and down the wall in the garden, which isn’t half as much fun for us as going on longer runs. It almost seems like mom and dad have become scared of the gate out to the rest of the world, which is really weird.

Mom has even started giving me daily lessons on how to find the front door and a lounge chair, which she’s been able to find on her own for years. So I’ve no idea why she seems to have forgotten. She’s also started refreshing herself on some of my most basic commands like down and stay. And I’m pretty sure she mastered those ages ago.

I know it’s for a good reason. I mean, mom and dad usually have logical reasons for what they do… apart from when they go somewhere without me. And I’m not really complaining – life is still wonderful, and I have lots of fun playing with my sisters and running around the garden. It’s just not the same.

If mom and dad are actually scared of the gate, I might eventually have to ask the trainers from the South African Guide-Dog Association to come and retrain them. But I’ll wait a few weeks before taking that drastic step and maybe everything will go back to normal if me and my sisters are patient.

At least, I hope so. It’s just all a little confusing for us right now…

A Video of a Working Guide Dog

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.

Paws for Thought on That Corner

As a guide dog, I know that, if there’s going to be a problem on a route, that it will always happen at the same spot. It’s almost an unwritten law amongst us guide dogs and our human partners. Well, in my case, if there’s going to be a problem it’ll happen at what mom and I have taken to calling That Corner.

To be honest, in our case it’s actually two corners, on both sides of the intersection of the road that crosses the railway line and the road we walk on to go to the train station or the local shopping centre. And maybe I’m over-exaggerating and maybe sometimes we face obstacles at other places on our route, but it really feels like it always happens there.

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It was at That Corner where the Rottweiler escaped from her property and threatened us. Which made me adjust our route slightly to avoid stepping on her driveway, just in case. I don’t think she’d really manage to break out again, but it’s just easier to avoid her territory and walk on the road instead. Leaving her to throw herself at her gate and snarl at us as we trot past.

It was also on That Corner where the human owners decided they didn’t want people on their grass and covered the pavement with big stones. So we walk on the road on that segment as well. And it’s That Corner that’s now a crumbled ruin, which mom tells me is due to the fiber-optic installation, whatever that means.

As if that’s not enough, it’s on the other side of That Corner that we have to weave our way round two street signs, two mostly submerged concrete slabs that mom said are also for Fiber-optics, and a huge lavender bush. Oh, and there’s often a car parked there too so we have to navigate round that. It takes some fancy footwork on my part, I can tell you! A week or so back we even had to navigate a big plastic bin that appeared on That Corner as well, which made it even more of an adventure. Happily, that bin didn’t stay for long so we’re back to just the normal chaos for now.

Here’s the thing about That Corner: Even though both mom and I get a little anxious when we have to navigate past whatever obstacles there are on any given day, we always manage to do so and emerge on the other side wagging our tails like crazy. Well, I have to wag on mom’s behalf since she doesn’t have a tail. But I’m sure she would also be wagging like crazy if she did. Because we work so well as a team. And that’s what it’s all about.

Guide Dog or White Cane – and the Winner is…

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A few days ago, I had two meetings at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. For various reasons that aren’t relevant to this post, I wasn’t able to take my guide dog Fiji with me. Instead I used my white mobility cane.

I have many blind and visually impaired friends who prefer to use a white cane as their primary mobility aid and they’re superb at it. But me, well… Let’s just say that because I generally use a guide dog, my cane skills aren’t that great.

Both rely on effective O&M skills – orientation and mobility for those who don’t know our jargon. Orientation is the ability to know your location using your other senses, and mobility is the ability to get from one place to another.

Here’s what I mean. I’m not used to walking into obstacles. Fiji usually walks me round things that are in our way. When using a white cane, I feel that life is much like a full body contact sport. I only know obstacles are there when I hit them with my cane tip, bounce off them, or fall over them. Also, I think I missed out when they were handing out senses of balance since I don’t have one. It’s okay when I’m with Fiji because she helps to balance me, especially when walking down stairs, which is probably my least favourite part of getting out and about. This absence of a sense of balance is magnified wen I’m using a white mobility cane – I simply don’t feel steady on my feet. And finally, I seem to battle to find straight. Again, that isn’t a problem with Fiji since I can leave it up to her. But when using a white cane, it’s up to me and I seem to spend my entire journey tacking from one side to the other.

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I know my cane skills would improve significantly if I were to use them more often, especially when travelling on my own. Because traveling independently with a cane leaves me feeling anxious, incompetent and unable. Which I hate.

I recently decided I needed to do something about that.

I’ve already contacted the O&M Instructor from the Cape Town Society for the Blind to set up a lesson so I can brush up on my obviously rusty cane skills. I also want to get a new, longer white cane since I’ve started walking faster since working with Fiji and a longer cane will give me a slightly longer reaction time when I encounter obstacles. I’ve also set myself the goal of becoming braver about using my cane independently so I can practice the skills I need.

Does this mean I’m going to use Fiji less? Absolutely not. Fiji will always be my first choice as a mobility aid. But it will definitely be valuable for me to be more comfortable using a white cane for those times when I can’t have Fiji with me.

To go back to the start of the post and answer the question, I firmly believe the winner will be me…. Because any way I can improve my levels of independence will help me be more effective in what I do.

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