Thank you for giving me my life back

Dear Makiko,

Four years and two weeks ago today, I laid my eyes upon you with your gorgeous brown eyes and black fur. We went through very rigorous training and exactly four years ago today, we walked across that stage at Guide Dogs for the Blind and officially became a team. Little did I know at that point just how much you would change my life. You’ve wagged, cuddled, and kissed your way into the hearts of so many people.

Makiko, you’ve enabled me to do what I love to do. My job as a transition counselor is incredibly busy and we travel A LOT. I don’t think I would have been able to keep doing this position, or I don’t know that i would have even applied to it, without you sweet girl. You give me the confidence to be okay with going new places independently and venture into the high schools which look like colleges. This confidence can be seen in many areas of my life – I am spending less time at home and more time out and about, socializing, volunteering, participating in community events, and being me.

I may be a bit biased but I think you are one of the best looking guide dogs out there and your sweet face just melts everybody’s heart. People want to come up to me and ask me about you and of course, I love to tell everybody about how amazing and beautiful you are! This has led to many new friendships and connections… relationships I know I wouldn’t have made as a cane user. You have opened many doors for me.

Because you have been such an life-changing guide dog, I have wanted to continue to give back to Guide Dogs for the Blind and become more and more involved in this selfless community. Because of you, I have the opportunity to travel and meet people, sharing about Guide Dogs for the Blind. I have the opportunity to help raise funds and introduce the guide dog lifestyle to many other individuals with visual impairments. My public speaking skills are steadily improving and I’m becoming more confident in this area, an area that I have struggled in for many years. I have co-founded and become the Co-President of “The Eyes of Texas”, the Texas Alumni Chapter for Guide Dogs for the Blind, where I have had the opportunity to meet so many incredible graduates with guide dogs across the state. I founded “Guide Dog Handlers Network,” a Facebook social support group for guide dog handlers from all over the world and we have had the opportunity to be there for each other and brighten each other’s lives. Because of you, I have a new amazing community that I have the honor of being a part of.

Because of you, my gorgeous girl, my wanderlust is back in full swing and I want to travel with you by my side because it is SO much fun and I feel totally free when traveling with you.

I am much safer with you by my side, leading the way with me holding onto that harness handle. I’ve had many surgeries and casts through the years due to falls or accidents due to my vision loss. One of the worst ones was when I didn’t see a particularly icy patch in Tulsa when I was going to school there and fell on it, unable to get up. One torn meniscus surgery and a lot of therapy later, I am doing just fine. I am proud to say that while working you, I have not had one vision related accident. That is HUGE. You’re a star at “intelligent disobedience.” If I tell you to go and you think it’s not safe, you will do everything in your power to tell me, “No, Mom.. really.. NO,” and will show me the safer route. You can be quite stubborn and I wouldn’t change that for anything.

You’ve helped me become much more physically fit and active. 5 years ago, I would have never dreamed about wanting to exercise. However now it’s a definite goal and I WILL make it happen. Through walking at your speedy pace, you have made me a much faster walker, even when you’re not guiding me. You understand my busy lifestyle and help me navigate crowds like a ninja. Sometimes, my sighted friends even let you just lead the way because you’re just that brilliant at what you do.

I continue to lose my vision. Just when I think I’ve lost a lot and it will stabilize, BAM.. I lose more vision. You, smart girl, are able to adapt to my vision loss more than the closet humans in my life can. You learn what Mama can’t see anymore or what she’s likely to miss, that she may have been just fine with 6 months ago. Not all guide dogs can adapt that well.

They say dogs are a man’s best friend, but you, sweet Makiko, are much more than that. When I’m having a particularly rough day or struggling with depressive symptoms, you are right there to stick your head in my lap and ask for permission to come cuddle, or lay right beside me. You make me keep going as I will never let your exercise, food, water, and relieving needs go unmet.

As we embark upon year five, sweet girl, I promise to show you daily how much I love you and am grateful for you as we have the time of our lives on this journey called “life.” Thank you for giving me my life back, after vision loss. I wouldn’t be where I am today without you.



The Joys of Traveling with Makiko

Makiko and I have been busy lately!

In August, we went to Florida for work – a Project SEARCH conference.

In September, we moved Mom to Colorado.

In November, we went to visit Mom for Thanksgiving in Colorado.

In December, we went to Houston for a work conference and are now in Colorado visiting Mom and family for the holidays!

Traveling can be tough for anyone, but especially if you have a disability. I have always loved traveling. It was a lot more frustrating though when I was a cane user, especially when flying alone, because I had to depend on one of the airlines’ escorts to help me to and from my gate. Most of them are incredibly slow to get there, aren’t in any rush, and usually are only trained to help people in wheelchairs, not those of us who don’t need a wheelchair. When I first got Makiko, I still waited for one of these escorts but now, we just wing it! Together we know the way through the DFW airport, Dallas Love Field Airport, and Denver airport and don’t need any sort of assistance. In airports we aren’t familiar with, I usually just ask for directions at the check in counter or from somebody when we get off the plane and then we go. It’s so much more freeing and remarkably less frustrating.

It’s always gives me a chuckle to see how TSA reacts to us. Almost always we have to tell them how we do it. (Makes me so glad for the practice we had at a real airport with real TSA agents during guide dog training) A few weeks ago, they kept trying to wave me through and then became frustrated when I didn’t notice. I finally was able to sense something and got it sorted out. This time they had four TSA agents gathered in a circle on the other side of the metal detector whispering. I noticed a TSA agent go right in front of me and asked him if I could assist.. he said they were trying to figure out if the alarm would go off. I said it would with her and once again explained how I put her in a sit stay, extend the leash, walk through, call her through, they pat her down, swan my hands, and then we are on the way. I wrote them and encouraged them to do a little more training and even offered to provide it.. for free! I haven’t heard back yet though. 🙂 

Makiko also loves traveling. Here is a video I took shortly after we got off the plane a few weeks ago. You can see her take me all the way to the elevator to take down to baggage claim. 

What makes traveling easier for you?!

White Cane Day 2015

All of the participants walking around the Square in Denton
All of the participants walking around the Square in Denton
I am walking with my guide dog along with several other sighted peers and supporters who are using a white cane as we walk around the Square.
I am walking with my guide dog along with several other sighted peers and supporters who are using a white cane as we walk around the Square.
One of the participants holding a "White Cane Day" sign
One of the participants holding a “White Cane Day” sign
Group picture in front of the steps of the Square
Group picture in front of the steps of the Square

The President of the United States annually recognizes White Cane Day by the Blind Americans Equality Day Proclamation on October 15th to acknowledge the abilities of people who are blind and to promote equal opportunities as any other American.

The mission of White Cane Day is to educate the world about blindness and how the blind and visually impaired can live and work independently while giving back to their communities, to celebrate the abilities and successes achieved by blind people in a sighted world and to honor the many contributions being made by the blind and visually impaired.

A few weeks prior to White Cane Day, I found out that nobody in our community had organized it for this year. While I was having the busiest month of the year at work, I decided this was just no good. So I (on behalf of the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services – DARS Denton Field Office) worked with one of my best friends, Devin Axtman (on behalf of the University of North Texas Office of Disability Accommodation UNT ODA), and we organized the White Cane Day for Denton together. We met at UNT On The Square and then walked around the square. The Division for Blind Services brought white canes for sighted supporters to use while they walked around the square to help  spread awareness for our cause in a very visual manner. We had a volunteer that brought a few signs. We had the opportunity to get to know each other as supporters of people with disabilities. It was a great event. I am hoping we can start planning next year way earlier and make it even bigger.

Wet floor signs – a problem no more

RP Truths #007: Wet Floor Signs are, and will always be the ENEMY.
RP Truths #007: Wet Floor Signs are, and will always be the ENEMY.

For individuals with low vision who don’t use a mobility aid, or for cane users, this is so true. Whomever created those things definitely didn’t have “universal access” in mind. 🙂 For someone with low vision, especially when they don’t have peripheral vision, they look ahead and miss everything left, right, up, and below. This means that wet floor signs often make us topple. However, with Makiko, we don’t even know there are wet floor signs around… she just maneuvers us so gracefully around everything.

Blindness Awareness Month (Catch-up!)

I recently found out that this month is Blindness Awareness Month. There are a lot of “months” or “weeks” happening and so it has been hard to catch up. However, I wanted to tell you all a little bit about Blindness Awareness Month. The goal of Blindness Awareness Month is to promote awareness of what is like to live without, or with very little, sight. One of more commonly known events that happen this month is White Cane Day. White Cane Day is on October 15, 2013 and is a national observance set aside since 1964 to celebrate the achievements of people who are blind or visually impaired, and the important symbol of blindness and tool of independence, the white cane. Basically, individuals with visual impairments can do just about EVERYTHING with the proper supports, such as reliable public transportation, orientation and mobility training, assistive technology, vocational rehabilitation, etc. We can be independent in our home and work lives and we can give back to the community while doing so.

With that, I thought that I would give a fact about visual impairments every day for the entire month of October. Since I’m jumping on this bandwagon late, I’ll catch up below. Also, I want to extend the invitation for you all to ask me anything you are curious about, by commenting on this blog or by sending me the question via the Contact Me button at the top of this page. You don’t even have to list your name if you’re too embarrassed or shy. I want to educate and spread awareness and so I would love to answer your questions. At the end of this month, I’ll compile all of the questions that I’ve been asked here, as well as some of the most common questions I get asked, and write a post answering them.

October 1/Fact #1: About 90% of the world’s visually impaired live in developing countries. (World Health Organization)

October 2/Fact #2: Most people who have the label as “blind” because they are legally blind or visually impaired are not completely blind. Blindness covers many types of visual impairments from tunnel vision (like I have), lack of central vision but one can see in the peripheral, focussing disorders, only light perception, etc. In fact, only 1 in 10 individuals who are blind are without any sight at all.

October 3/Fact #3: Individuals with visual impairments do not automatically get a better sense of hearing because they are blind. They learn to concentrate and pay close attention to the auditory cues and what is going on around them and they find ways to use it to compensate for their lack of visual information. This may give off the impression that they can hear better than individuals with sight, but it is indeed not the case.

October 4/Fact #4: Globally, uncorrected refractive errors are the main cause of visual impairment; cataracts remain the leading cause of blindness in middle- and low-income countries.

October 5/Fact #5: Talking loud to a person with a visual impairment does not increase their ability to understand you. An individual without sight has eyeballs that do not work as a sighted person’s would, but unless they have an additional disability such as individuals with Usher’s Syndrome do, they do not require one to simply speak louder to compensate for the lack of visual information.

October 6/Fact #6: All individuals with visual impairments do not read Braille. Literacy is a problem with individuals who are visually impaired in today’s society for two reasons. Technology is allowing more and more individuals to not have to learn Braille because they can rely on screen readers, computers, apps, and smartphones to help them navigate their daily activities and responsibilities and that is a huge factor that contributes to the illiteracy in many individuals with visual impairments. Many of these methods do not promote good spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. Also, children have visual impairments are not required to learn Braille in school because many can get by with large print but then as their vision progresses over the years they are not able to use that large print anymore and don’t want to use Braille. I do want to add as a Disclaimer that there are MANY MANY MANY individuals with visual impairments that are very literate, but there is an increasing trend in illiteracy in the blindness community. Many individuals who are blind and illiterate are still able to function though because of thet assistive technology that I mentioned above. (Info from Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind)

October 7/Fact #7: When talking to an individual with a visual impairment, it is still okay to use the words “see,” “watch,” “observe,” “look,” “view,” etc. Individuals with visual impairments “see” things their own way, etc. There is no need to be hesitant when using these. HOWEVER, I will add this disclaimer just from personal experience. A time it is NOT okay to ask an individual with a visual impairment if they SAW something is if you clearly know they do not have the ability to see, visually, what you are talking about but still expect/ask them if they saw it. I will give an example as a situation. I was in a class where a Professor knows I have very limited vision, we have discussed this on multiple occasions, and I can only see right in front of me with any clarity and if it is text it needs to be large print or on the computer. She wrote something on the board and when I ditactdn’t get that information, I emailed to inquire about something related and the Professor wrote back, “Didn’t you see what was on the board?” This is an example when “see” is not appropriate but really that has more to do with a lack of awareness about blindness than the vocabulary chosen.

October 8/Fact #8: Some think that it is appropriate to describe directions to an individual with a visual impairment in terms of how many steps they have to take from Point A to Point B. While there may be an individual out there who uses this method, most individuals with visual impairments use tactile cues such as “when you get to the intersection of such and such,” because individuals can feel the curbs, etc and they learn to know the layout of the neighborhood, campus, etc.

Did you learn anything new? If so, what? What do you think about what I stated? What has been the most surprising thing that you have learned about individuals with visual impairments, whether it’s been on this blog, through me, or through another source?